Don Williams, one of the senior lions of the Dallas business oligarchy, tells me his peers at the top of the pyramid are open to radical change in policing, education, and the way they themselves do business, all of it aimed at post-George Floyd racial justice. Over the years, my own experience has been that Williams, former chairman of Trammell Crow Company, doesn’t say stuff that isn’t true. But I do have to admit I am struggling to keep up.
A pop-up memorial in University Park to Black lives lost at the hands of police? A North Dallas church projecting the names of George Floyd, Botham Jean, and Ahmaud Arbery onto the church façade? It’s as if a dam has cracked.
And now this. Williams says the old Dallas oligarchy is beginning to admit the need for radical change. I am hearing something I can’t believe from someone I can’t disbelieve.
The commitment of Black Americans to civil rights is an unbending beam of steel through our entire history back to slavery and the founding of the nation. That cause has never wavered.
But White people? There is even a name for it now. Allies. In street marches here and across the country, we are seeing White allies in significant numbers and in places that an old person like me finds astonishing. And now, if what Williams is saying is true, I’m so astonished that I may have to call a doctor.
Retired and in his 70s, Williams still wields a mighty Rolodex (sorry, iPhone). When he was chairman of Trammell Crow Company, from 1994 to 2002, the New York Times called the company the biggest property management firm in the nation. That résumé still gets him call-backs from people at the top. Since retiring, Williams has been aggressively active in city issues related to racial justice, earning him another kind of credibility and call-backs from prominent minority leaders. He told me this week that in calls to the city’s old-guard business leaders, as well as to minority leadership, he has found an openness to some changes so radical that they would have been almost unutterable just a short time ago.
I asked him what got him going. He said he knows from his own community activism how hard it is to really make things happen on the ground. He was sick of seeing a lot of public messaging from both corporations and nonprofits since the death of George Floyd expressing what seemed to him like empty sympathy.
“The short of it,” Williams says, “is that I was receiving all of these messages with a sort of self-congratulatory tone from people saying, ‘We support Black Lives Matter, blah-blah-blah.’ It’s just talk. It was just complete bullshit.
“I wondered what we could do in Dallas. What could we do in the short-term to affect the race issues and poverty issues?”
He started calling people he knows. “I’ve got this group of buddies I’ve met together with for 25 years or 30 years.” He named some of them to me. I won’t re-name them here, because it would take me 25 or 30 years to get them to call me back to confirm their involvement. But I know who they are, and I have my own somewhat biased way of thinking about them, so as he spoke, I thought to myself, “Oh, wow, he actually talked this over with Louis XIV, Benedict Arnold, Count Dracula, Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader …”
Not only did they think he was on to something with his eight-point action plan, he said they all had their own ideas, amendments, and contributions to offer. “They really encouraged me,” Williams says.
In addition to being a truth-teller, Williams has a good smoke detector. He knows a brush-off when he sees one. So I believe him when he tells me there was real interest among the cavalcade of ruthless robber barons—I apologize, sorry, correct that, this is D Magazine, I meant to say “respected business leaders”—with whom he consulted on his action plan.
What’s in the plan? It calls for the city to offer forgivable down payments to all local public employees to help them buy homes in the city. It calls for every business and institution in the city to raise its bottom wage to $17 an hour. The plan includes aggressive minority hiring and advancement and wider use of minority contractors. It puts the finger directly on Gov. Greg Abbott to quit shutting the state out of expanded Medicaid coverage.
And then we get to law enforcement. The plan calls for a reform of laws providing “qualified immunity” from suit to police in cases where they have violated a person’s constitutional rights. That’s an extreme hot-button question on all sides of the police issue.
The plan calls for a ban on chokeholds by police. It demands major changes to standing rules on shootings. And this: “Insure background checks and national registry of all police officers hired to determine incidents in other cities or membership in White supremacy groups including the KKK, Nazis, Civil Militia, and affiliated organizations.”
The eight-point proposal addresses a host of other issues including education, public transportation, and voting, all with the same incisive eye to radical change.
And what happens now? Williams is shopping for a take-charge person to lead the effort. He says he can’t do it himself, because he is “too controversial.” That could be true. His influential involvement in a series of tough local issues in recent years may offset some of the Rolodex clout.
But he told me the person he hopes to find will be another Rolodexer like him, somebody who can pick up the phone and get call-backs. In our chat, he did not offer the position to me.
I don’t know what any single piece of all this means — the Park Cities memorial, the White allies in the marches, this new indication of a serious mood for change even among the mm-mm barons. But it does mean something. There is something alive in this moment that must not be allowed to die.