Iapologize for being late. I had to get some slimy degenerates off my property.”
It’s 9:45 on a Monday morning, and Alphonso Jackson, new head of the Dallas Housing Authority, has already made three troubleshooting forays to various DHA developments. The last trip involved what Jackson says is an all-too-common pattern on some DHA properties: outsiders, often white, in search of drugs. And finding what they need.
A lady living in Roseland Homes had called Jackson over to witness a parade of visitors in and out of a certain apartment. The last to leave, he notices, is a well-dressed young white man who climbs into a BMW. Few of the DHA’s 12,000-plus residents are white, and none dirve $40,000 cars. Jackson’s antennae are twitching: he senses the presence of “slimy degenerates,” his unchanging term of scorn for drug users and sellers. But while Jackson is pretty sure that SDs are at work here, not even the DHA director can barge into an apartment without probable cause. He wins a partial victory on the way back to the DHA offices on Lucas Drive, when the security guard he is riding with stops a young man for speeding on the property. The man, who has no driver’s license, says he is staying (“cohabitating” is Jackson’s word) with a resident. Jackson confronts the woman, who confesses to harboring someone who is not on her lease. He says she’ll be given a notice to shape up or ship out.
“It is not a right to live in public housing,” says Jackson, forty-two, who became executive director of the Dallas Housing Authority this past January. “’It’s a privilege. We have been too patronizing with low- and moderate-income [never “poor”] people and too paternalistic, So they lack a sense of their own worth. My position is simply this: when we give them safe, decent, and sanitary housing, they must carry out their part of the bargain, and if they don’t, they don’t have a right to live here.”
On Jackson’s office wall is a poster with a bold-lettered slogan, “Resurrection through self-sufficiency,” that might serve as his credo. And there’s a large cartoon of him on a football field, wearing a referee’s uniform. The caption, “I call it as I see it,” is a good summation of Jackson’s operating style.
Alphonso Jackson is a paradox, part bureaucrat and part street preacher, whose mind reveals either an intriguing philosophical synthesis (if you like him) or hopeless confusion (if you don’t). He talks like a hardline conservative Republican while occupying a post that’s the quintessential creation of the liberal Democrats’ welfare state: a twenty-one-development housing authority with 300 employees and a $33 million budget. He’s more likely to harp on traditional values and morality than to sing the litany of individual rights and Washington’s duty to the citizens. And while he aims to make his mark on his hometown, he’s restless with the current state of our political and social dialogue.
Jackson is pleased and proud that Dallas has made strides toward racial equality in the past decade-a major factor in his decision to return after more than two decades away. He admits he never thought he’d see the day that we’d have a black city manager and a black superintendent of schools, and he lauds the majority community for launching the charter review movement “when there was no great hue and cry” for reform. But acerbic exchanges about racism, institutional or otherwise, strike him as boring and counterproductive.
“Racism has been with us from the inception of the world,” Jackson says. “It will be with us when the Almighty decides there is no more world. I’m sick and tired of hearing that everything that happens in this community is based on racism. Is there someone who doesn’t want to eat or go to school with African-Americans? Fine. I want to find the Anglo who says we have to work together. And the Hispanic. And eventually, the three of us will ostracize the idiot who does not want to sit down with us. But to keep dwelling on racism-this is nothing new.”
If Jackson stays in Dallas (and he says he will, though he readily volunteers that the Bush administration has contacted him three times about filling a spot in HUD or the Department of Education), he may break- or at least expand-the mold of the moderate black leader. For example: Jackson is not much interested in merely adding to the numbers of darker-hued politicians, as if that were an end in itself rather than a means. Here’s a man who stood back, during the mathematical frenzy of the Charter Revision, and said: whether we change the City Council to 12-1, or 10-4-1 SuperQuad, what does it mean to my people?
“The question is whether the new configuration will improve the quality of life for low- and moderate-income people. If it does not, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what configuration we have. If all it means is some people will be elected to office and be able to espouse their individual viewpoint, it doesn’t mean anything. Political parity without economic parity is no parity.”
In the early Fifties, when Alphonso Jackson was growing up on Lawrence Street in South Dallas, it was a different world. The black middle class had not yet fled the ghetto, and the Four Horsemen of the Underclass-Violence. Drugs. Illegitimacy, and Unemployment-had not yet ravaged the inner city. Jackson’s father worked in a foundry by day and ran a janitorial service by night, and while Mr. and Mrs. Jackson never went to college, they were determined that their brainy son would take that step. He attended St. Peter’s Preparatory College, at that time (he Catholic high school for blacks. Jackson recalls it as “the most loving and nurturing environment you could be in,” and says the nuns and priests “tried to dispel any belief that we were inferior to anybody else.” Despite their sheltering love, Jackson also remembers the racially motivated bombings in South Dallas, the segregated lunch counters at H.L. Green downtown, and “Colored High School Day” at the State Fair.
A star sprinter, Jackson was offered a number of athletic and academic scholarships, including three to Ivy League schools. His parents urged him toward the more tolerant climes of the East, but his heart was set on The University of Texas-until he met with UT athletic director Pat Patterson. “Well, we can’t say your grades are bad.” Patterson told him. “We can’t say you’re not a good athlete. But we’re just not ready for ’Negrous’ athletes yet.” Patterson said there would be no scholarship for Jackson, but he offered to find generous alumni to pay the boy’s way. Jackson declined (“If I’m that good, I ought to be on scholarship”). After a year with the University of Pennsylvania he transferred to Northeast Missouri State University, where he was twice named AI1-American. He had no plans for coming back to Texas.
Jackson had intended to become a doctor, but the currents of history pulled him away from those early plans. With the civil rights movement aboil in 1965. he and several friends decided to leave school and head south to help register black voters, heeding the call of Martin Luther King Jr. Still a teenager, Jackson met battle-hardened veterans like King, Andrew Young (now mayor of Atlanta), John Lewis (now a Georgia congressman), and others. He was clubbed by police and bitten by a police dog, leaving a scar he wears proudly today.
“There were people of all races and colors there,” Jackson says. “We all shared the same treatment. It shaped my life.” Jackson says he’ll never forget Kings speech at the governor’s mansion in Montgomery, with its stirring refrain of “How long? Not long”
galvanizing the crowd. “A lot of people think his ’I have a dream’ speech in Washington was his greatest, but they’re wrong. That was it.”
After taking a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Northeast Missouri, Jackson moved on to Washington University School of Law for his law degree. He taught criminal justice and political science for three years at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, served as director of public safety for the city of St. Louis, and spent the early Eighties running the St. Louis Housing Authority. After a stint in the private sector as president of his own “urban consultant” firm, Jackson became director of the Washington, D.C.. Department of Public Housing and Assisted Housing in May 1987, oversee-ing 1,100 employees and dispensing a budget of $137 million. Knowing Mayor Marion Barry’s reputation for “meddling,” Jackson insisted on certain conditions: he could fire anyone who was not performing; Barry could not recommend anyone to be hired; and the mayor would have to deal directly with Jackson rather than sending “emissaries” as he had done with past directors.
Jackson went to Washington skeptical of Ronald Reagan’s commitment to helping the less fortunate, but he was quickly converted. “When I got there and saw how much low-and moderate-income people had been patronized, I realized that his initial belief was correct: we will help those who are in need, but we will punish those who think they can use the system.” He also became a believer in one of the public housing world’s most controversial ideas: resident management. Activists like Kimi Gray, who engineered the rebirth of D.C.’s infamous Kenniworth-Rirk-side, taught him that housing bureaucrats were wrong in thinking that only “professionals” could run public housing.
Everyone thought that they knew what was best for public housing residents. That gives the residents a carefree attitude,’1 Jackson says. “They think, well, if we tear it up today, they will renovate it for us tomorrow.” Jackson learned that his tenants, if given the chance, would cooperate with each other and shoulder the burden. “The mistake is thinking that we can go into a community and pick their leaders. Leaders emerge from the group. It’s an evolutionary process. I’ve not seen a group in my seven years that has not accepted the challenge.”
Jackson believes that several Dallas projects, among them Rhoades Terrace in South Dallas and Roseland Homes in North Dallas, are ready to take the first steps toward resident management. “They’ve got the leaders ready to make the hard decisions and be criticized by their peers,” he says. As for treatment of the slimy degenerates, Jackson says that resident managers are notoriously strict. “You and I would be a lot more liberal. Down at Cochran Gardens [in St. Louis], if they catch you using drugs, you’re gone. No ifs, ands, or buts.”
The DHA’s new man keeps a busy schedule that includes hopping around the country to make speeches and attend seminars. So he was out of town when The Dallas Morning News ran a lengthy and devastating account of rampant drug use in the George Loving Place projects in West Dallas-an epidemic fueled, at least in part, by widespread illegal trafficking in food stamps. In some cases, the addicted parents allowed their children to go hungry while they sold food stamps or traded them for drugs.
Jackson doesn’t deny there’s a drug problem in the projects. He estimates that 10 to 15 percent of households are involved, a figure he says roughly matches the extent of the problem in the whole society. It’s a question that starkly illustrates Jackson’s hybrid ideology: are the drug users victims, or makers of their own destiny-and that of their children? On this day, he stresses the victim’s role first.
“Anywhere the population is low- and moderate-income, you’re going to find high drug trafficking,” he says. “The slimy degenerates look for the least police protection and the least male image around. But that could be anywhere. They consistently write stories like this about Hispanics and African-Americans. But they never write about the mother who lives in these conditions, and yet she sends her kids to college and they make something out of themselves. It’s as if they want society to believe that if you’re Hispanic or African-American, you’re doomed to live like the people in that article.”
There’s the leftist side of Jackson: the problems of the poor are to be blamed on indifferent cops and a racist, scandal-mon-gering press. But then, characteristically, he veers to the law-and-order right. “I’ve seen kids that there is no hope for, and the best thing we can do for them is put them in prison, because we’re not going to change them. We have to get them off our property, or they will infect the other kids with their poison.”
Jackson believes that public housing residents have been unfairly stigmatized as somehow alien creatures. In fact, he says, middle Americans have more in common with his clients than they might think. “If the statistics are right, the average savings of an American family is about $1,500. The average American is only two paychecks away from poverty.”
And he wants to be perfectly clear about another point: public housing residents welcome police in their neighborhoods- “white, black, or pink, as long as they’re fair. Police have been afraid they’d be called racists if somebody was killed or hurt severely. So they stayed out. And that’s exactly what the slimy degenerates and the criminals want. Well, here comes Alphon-so Jackson who says that’s not true. Unlike what some of the quote-unquote African-American leaders believe, low- and moderate-income people want police protection. They know what it’s like having someone outside your door at five in the morning cursing, shooting, and looting.
“Somebody will say, Alphonso, thatsounds just like a Republican.1 Well, I don’tcare what it sounds like. I walk the properties every day and what I see is the remnants.This is what happens when you don’t makepeople self-sufficient.”
Iapologize for being late. I had to get some slimy degenerates off my property.”