Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"A Blight and a Sin": Segregation, The Kennedy Assassination And The Wreckage of Whiteness, Part V

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." In honor of that fifth anniversary, I have been serializing that book at this blog site. Here, I describe how the racial politics of the city left Dallas badly divided and dispirited by the end of the 20th century,

By the 1990s, the ever-present threat of civil disorder haunted Dallas' dreams of the future. The 1990s began as a horror show for white elites. In March 1990, John Wiley Price lead protests against liquor billboards in minority neighborhoods and hiring practices at local television stations, getting into fights resulting in highly-publicized arrests for assault and vandalism. Price sent shivers through white Dallas when, as Dallas searched for a new police chief, he pledged, "If you try and bring in a good old boy in this system, we're going to be in the streets. Physically, literally shooting folks."

If elites offered Dallas the simulacra of democracy, politicians like Price offered the hollow imitation of dissent. No coherent program could be discerned in Price's scattered demonstrations and he proved as prone to the type of backroom deal-making that provoked him to call Mayor Kirk a "Sambo." Price and Kirk both ignored the needs of the Cadillac Heights neighborhood, located along the Trinity River near Cedar Crest Boulevard.

A collection of small frame homes with streets named after a variety of car manufacturers, Cadillac Heights was 99 percent black and brown in 1999. Two lead smelters formerly pumped toxins into the community. At century's end, animal rendering plants and the Central Wastewater Treatment center were located in the neighborhood, an example of what residents described as institutional racism placing black residences disproportionately near unhealthy industrial sites. Cadillac Heights also suffered from regular severe flooding. As the 1990s closed, Cadillac Heights became the latest black community threatened by bulldozer apartheid, this time with the collaboration of the black "radical" John Wiley Price and his unlikely ally Kirk.

Price publicly backed Kirk's Trinity River Plan, a pricey scheme of lakes, levees, highways and architecturally elaborate "signature bridges." The plan included no funds to support homeowners wanting to leave their crumbling, flood-prone and polluted neighborhood to find comparable or better housing elsewhere in the city. Critics speculated that Price had cut a deal with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. In exchange for construction of a biotech research center in his district, he would back the Trinity River Plan. "How can a black politician support this?" asked activist Roy Williams. "How come they could not get something to buy these people out? Why did he sacrifice the people in his constituency?"

The leadership of the African American and Mexican American communities seemed more focused on their rage towards each other than challenging the white power structure, the survival of which seemed insured by the inter-racial conflict. Much of the black-brown discord centered on the policies of the Dallas school board that now oversaw a minority-majority district. Relations between blacks and Mexican Americans bottomed out with the appointment of Yvonne Gonzalez as superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District in 1997. Gonzalez, later sent to prison for spending district money to buy furniture for her private use, quickly learned to manipulate the racial politics of the board. She had been selected because of an iron alliance between Anglos and Mexican Americans, formed to block the priorities of black members including the hiring of a black superintendent.

Nine weeks after her appointment as superintendent, she met with Hispanic activists who asked for more focus on the needs of Mexican American students. "I'm Latina . . . " she told the group. "Forty-five percent of my children are Hispanic. And I will represent them." Activist Jesse Diaz told Gonzalez that he did not expect her to divert resources from the African American community to the Hispanic community. "There is no way that can't happen," she declared. So entrenched had whiteness become in some Mexican American leadership circles that school board policy was designed in terms of the zero-sum game. Mexican American progress, Gonzalez insisted, necessarily meant loss to African Americans.

Conflict inspired gloom. Dallas looked at the decayed wreckage of urban America and feared it saw its future. The ideology of whiteness rested on a Manichean worldview in which civilized whites contended with colored savages. If the threat of dark outsiders justified the undemocratic rule of elites, this racial eschatology could inspire only pessimism in an atmosphere of elite political failure. The city's more cynical residents debated whether Dallas would be destroyed by fire — the Watts-style riot Robert Greenwald had feared — or by the icy grip of decay. "From the top of the 73-story Renaissance Center, downtown Detroit looks like Dallas' worst nightmare," a front-page Morning News story warned in 1995. "At 6 p.m. on a Monday, the streets are bomb-raid empty. Elevated people-mover trains coast by unoccupied. Pedestrians can be counted on one hand. The looks are deceiving. Detroit's condition is actually worse . . ."

Business executive Robert Hoffman worried that Big D might suffer a similar fate. What was once seen as the course of the creativity and determination of Dallas' white founding fathers was now perceived as evidence of vulnerability. Hoffman, former chair of the committee that authored the Dallas Plan, the city's official blueprint for the twenty-first century development, warned in a terrifying inversion of the Origin Myth that, "Dallas did not have a place that created it, like San Francisco's harbor. What created Dallas was economic opportunity and business. But much of our business — what created us — has moved to the suburbs." Reporter Chris Kelly observed, "Because there are so few natural features, such as an ocean, to soothe Dallas' population — let alone attract newcomers — the city may be even more at risk to flight of business and people . . ."

The sordid racial squabbles of the present seemed to presage a grim future. But then again, an undercurrent of gloom had always been the unacknowledged twin of the Origin Myth's meglomaniacal optimism. Disbelief in human agency served as a literal article of faith for many in the city who spent their lives anticipating worse than municipal rot. In the last years of the twentieth century, Dallas evangelicals prophesied a coming world war. Some conservative Christian ministers echoed Cyrus Scofield's warning that a literal anti-Christ would arise any minute to conquer the world. Their flocks anticipated the universal collapse of the modern technological infrastructure because of the so-called "Y2K" computer virus and grew certain that the Christian calendar year 2000 heralded the beginning of the Great Tribulation. As the 1990s ended, Dallas army surplus stores reported a rush on hand-cranked radios, MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), power generators and gas masks from customers anticipating the Y2K computer crash.

Many fundamentalists were certain that on January 1, 2000, computers, which used a two-digit system for marking years, would read the abbreviated date 01-01-00 as January 1, 1900. In the resulting confusion, some feared, computer-operated systems for water treatment, emergency medical equipment, traffic control, and other services would self-destruct. Hunkered down in their bunkers, rifles ready and cocked against the onslaught of alien outsiders, these dispensationalist vigilantes created Dallas' ultimate gated community.

Whiteness proved an effective tool for controlling dissent. It was poison to community building. By the mid-to-late 1990s, Dallas represented a dispirited collage of mutually antagonistic fragments, a sum much less than its alienated parts. Whiteness, like pre-millennialism, was a theology based on visions of Armageddon. It was not just the desire for the wages of whiteness — improved income, better homes, and healthier lives — that motivated oppressed Jews, Mexican Americans and white laborers to disdain their black neighbors. If marginalized whites united on any issue, it was to prevent the rule of black undermen, an outcome depicted in the popular culture as a collapse into savagery.

The effort spent to prevent this racial apocalypse left little energy for the pursuit of economic justice. In any case, worldly politics were futile. Scofield and other dispensationalists had taught Dallas so. Dallas' denial of history combined with a conservative, future-oriented theology to promote present-day passivity. If Dallas never exploded like Watts, Birmingham or Detroit, it was not because it enjoyed a more dynamic leadership than those cities, but because of a self-induced paralysis that left the structures of oppression soundly intact. Under the influence of whiteness, Dallas learned to forget the past, regret the present and dread the future.


Many overoptimistically hoped that Dallas had moved past racial divisiveness in 1995 when the city elected its first-ever African American mayor Ron Kirk. Kirk, a Democrat who enjoyed support from conservative Republicans was widely credited with bridging the racial divides that plagued Dallas from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. When the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks and the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars both indicated they would move to the suburbs unless the city built a new sports arena, Kirk played a lead role in winning voter approval for construction of the $20 million American Airlines Center. Kirk also won from voters a go-ahead for the Trinity River Development project, which called for $246 million to provide flood protection, and build roads, parks and a nature preserve in economically depressed South Dallas.

One of Mayor Ron Kirk’s biggest political defeats came when he failed to win Dallas’ selection as the host city for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Dallas, noted for its high summertime heat and humidity, did not even make the list of finalists announced in October 2001. A more deeply felt blow came just six months earlier when Dallas lost an effort to become the new corporate headquarters for Seattle-based Boeing Corporation. Boeing opted to move to Chicago. This decision was widely taken as a repudiation of Dallas as a second-rate, dull prairie town compared to the vibrant, cosmopolitan metropolis of the Midwest. Meanwhlle, Critics charged that Kirk's big-ticket projects amounted to corporate welfare for the wealthiest developers.

Corruption at City Hall and protests against Kirk’s spending priorities fueled the candidacy of longtime political outsider Laura Miller, a former controversial columnist for The Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Observer. Miller defeated the heavily favored Tom Dunning, who had the backing of the city’s business establishment. She vaulted to the office of mayor during a special election to fill Kirk’s unfinished term in 2002. She promised to reorient the city government’s focus away from projects benefiting Dallas’ business elites and towards more day-to-day concerns such as fixing potholes and improving libraries. Under Miller, who served as mayor from 2002 to 2007, Dallas saw its crime rate drop for the first time in a decade.

Miller, however, had a bad relationship with Dallas’ black community going back to a 1991 article she wrote about John Wiley Price, the first African American ever elected Dallas County Commissioner. The article included allegations of blackmail and sexual assault. An investigation by the district attorney ensued although all charges were dropped. As mayor, Miller locked horns with Terrell Bolton, the city’s first-ever African American police chief. Miller accused Bolton of incompetence, which she blamed in part for the city’s rising crime rate. Miller orchestrated the firing of Bolton, whose appointment had been greeted with excitement by a black community used to dealing with a white-led police force that frequently used excessive and deadly force against suspects of color.

Leaders of the black community led an unsuccessful drive to recall Miller and they played a key role in twice defeating, in 2005, referenda which would have given Miller added power to bypass the City Council while implementing anti-crime and economic development policies. African Americans saw the proposal as a power grab by Miller inspired by white backlash against the increased minority voice on the City Council and the growing number of African Americans and Mexican Americans heading city departments. Turnout for the referenda was exceptionally high in largely black South Dallas, with high-profile African American ministers and former Mayor Kirk leading the opposition.

The Dallas media interpreted this defeat as a personal repudiation of Miller and the failure to win expanded powers probably played a big role in her decision to not run for re-election in 2007. Miller left a mixed legacy. Funding for her downtown revitalization plan withered and the Trinity River redevelopment project she supported had, by the end of her term, come badly over budget. As the city campaigned to become home of the Dallas Cowboys football franchise for the first time since 1971, Miller refused to commit $350 million to expand and modernize the Cotton Bowl at Dallas’s Fair Park, a decision that prompted Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to move the team to Arlington instead. Tom Leppert, a wealthy businessman succeeded her, a triumph that was seen as a return to power by Dallas’ traditional leadership and a signal by voters that the Dallas public had tired of the controversies of the Miller years.

Unfortunately for such voters, Dallas became embroiled in the third major city hall scandal in decade. In 2004, FBI agents began investigated Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill and D’Angelo Lee, a city planning commissioner, for demanding cash from vendors doing business with the city and insisting that friends get highly paid jobs with such firms. Agents also investigated Hill’s wife, Sheila Farmington Hill, for laundering the illegal payments through her bogus consulting business. The Hills and Lee were convicted in 2009. Meanwhile, another city councilmember, James Fantroy, was convicted of stealing money from Paul Quinn College. In failing health, Fontroy was allowed, after serving a month in prison, to spend the balance of his sentence in home confinement.

Leppert, a Republican, stepped down in 2011 and entered the U.S. Senate race to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison. Interim Mayor Dwaine Caraway, who became the city’s second African American chief executive, replaced him. Controversy quickly enveloped Caraway following a January 2011 domestic disturbance incident (while he was still mayor pro tem) involving his wife, Texas State Representative Barbara Caraway. In June 2011, Mike Rawlings, at one time the chief executive officer of the Pizza Hut fast food chain, handily defeated former Dallas police chief David Kunkle in an election to complete Leppert’s term. Rawlings, with wide support in the business community, ran on a traditional platform of encouraging downtown economic growth. He badly outspent Kunkle, who called for a Laura Miller-type program of improving neighborhoods in lieu of expensive development projects. Kunkle was hurt not only by a disadvantage in campaign funds, but also by the opposition to his campaign by Dallas police and firefighter associations.

As always, school politics inspired the most rancorous tensions between the city’s Anglos, African Americans and Mexican Americans The reign of Yvonne Gonzelez as Dallas School Superintendent, from 1995 until she resigned and was convicted of embezzling school district funds in 1997, launched a period of great instability in Dallas school politics often punctuated with intense racial tension. Gonzalez herself proved racially divisive, declaring her interest in diverting attention from the needs of African American students to those of Mexican Americans. Including Gonzales, four permanent and three interim superintendents went through the school district leadership’s revolving door from 1995 to 2005. In 2006, school district officials were investigated for misusing school district issued credit cards for private use, the type of charge that led to Gonzalez’s ouster. In September 2008, the Dallas school district announced that it had overspent the previous year’s budget by $64 million and scrambled to balance the budget with a minimum of teacher layoffs.

By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, another dimension had been added to Dallas’ contentious race relations. Between 350,000 and 500,000 participated in a pro-immigrant rally in downtown Dallas April 13, 2006, the largest outside demonstration in the city’s history. The demonstration represented the increasing political power of the Latino community and the breadth of support Hispanics won among grassroots Anglos and blacks, even if the leadership of the three demographic groups remained deeply divided. Regardless, in November 2006, the city council of the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch passed Texas’ most severe anti-immigrant ordinance. Ordinance 2903 made English the official language of the city and prohibited landlords from renting to undocumented workers, with daily $500 fines imposed on property owners until they complied. Opponents of the anti-immigrant measures, meanwhile, gathered enough signatures to get the rental ban placed on the municipal ballot May 12, hoping voters would reject the measure. Voters approved the ordinance, however, by a more than 2-1 margin and political analysts predicted that other cities across the nation would soon follow the path blazed by Farmers Branch

Supporters of Ordinance 2903 denied that the law stemmed from anti-Mexican racism. O’Hare argued that immigrants brought crime, lower property values, declining public schools, and welfare dependency to the once prosperous suburb. In fact, immigration turned Farmers Branch in the last 20 years into busy hive of economic growth that claimed more than 80 corporate headquarters and 2,600 small and mid-size businesses, many of them owned by Mexican Americans and other non-white residents. Property values in Farmers Branch exploded and SAT scores in local schools rose. R.L. Turner High School, a nearby campus with a population that was 70 percent Hispanic, posted the best reading and math scores in the school district. A federal court overruled the original Farmers Branch ordinance. The Farmers Branch City Council passed a re-written statue in 2008, but Judge Jane J. Boyle invalidated this law in March 2010.

In the 21st century, Dallas’s troubled race relations faced an uncertain future. In a 2007 survey by The Dallas Morning News, 70 percent of residents rated the city’s race relations as only “fair” or "poor." Just 3 percent told interviewers that the city’s racial climate was "excellent." Black residents, long the primary target of racism, had an even more gloomy assessment, and were more likely to grade race relations as "poor" than Hispanics or whites. Marcy Barnes, a resident of Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood expressed the frustration of many Dallasites concerning racial politics in recent years. “It seems everyone is out for themselves instead of out for the whole,” she told the newspaper.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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