Forgive me, but I think we’re going to need more than the negotiated settlement between County Commissioner John Wiley Price and police officer Robert Bernal, and more than redrawn city council districts, in order to bury the hatchet of racial hatred and distrust in this community.

Don’t get me wrong. I breathed part of that collective sigh of relief when Price and Bernal, along with their lawyers and assorted cooler heads, declared their confrontation near an Oak Cliff park to have been a stupid clash of egos in which both men had erred. At least, that was my first reaction. Then came the questions.

● What if the offending officer had been white? Would a negotiated settlement have been possible? 1 doubt it. Some of those minority leaders pushing for the rapprochement between Price and Bernal clearly did so for reasons unrelated to the guilt or innocence of either man. Some were simply concerned with the short-term threat to civic order. Amid cries that the fire next time was coming this time, few were heeding the old Roman maxim, “Let justice be done, though the sky should fall.” Others, no doubt with an eye on the looming 14-1 vote, wanted to show that African-Americans and Hispanics could work together in the future. Had the officer been white, that worthwhile aim would not have been a factor. In that case, would the calming hand of the Rev. Zan Holmes Jr. have been enough to stay the chaos that some demagogues (if their rhetoric is to be believed) are panting to unleash?

? What does it say about our community that so many citizens could believe that the Price-Bernal clash was somehow an attempt to “set up” Price? Again we heard impassioned voices decrying the alleged conspiracy to discredit black officials around the country. To make matters worse, Lee Alcorn of the NAACP kicked up the paranoia level by charging that Bernal was merely a tool being used by the white power structure to divide the minority community. “You’re not going to take him out,” cried one Price defender among the angry crowd that flooded City Hall. The words made a flaming headline, but left unanswered the primary question: Who wanted to “take him out”?

In the official statement released after the Price-Bernal summit, Price said he no longer believed this particular incident was a racist plot. That’s nice, but wouldn’t five minutes of reflection have told everyone the same thing-and spared us all several days of tension?

Consider what you have to believe in order to buy the conspiracy line this time around. First, you must believe that someone ordered Bernal to go jogging by Price’s house to entrap him. Whoever “they” were, they foresaw Price’s reaction with Pavlovian certainty. Imagine the scene:

(In a shadowy room, the various members of They are gathered. They speak with one monolithic voice, of course.)

They: “All right, men, let’s get on it. We haven’t discredited a black leader in weeks. Progressive things are happening out there. We’ve got to stop it.”

They: “Not to worry. We’re working on a plot right now-and this one is a doozy.”

(Enter Bernal, puffing): “Hey, you guys, this is getting old. I’ve been joggin’ by Price’s house every day tor a week now. Still no confrontation. When’s he gonna come home?”

They: “We’ll do the manipulating here, officer. You know your orders. Just keep jogging.”

Bernal: “But even if I do insult him-how do we know he’ll come after me?”

They: “Don’t worry. He will. And he’ll be armed. Just don’t run too fast; you don’t want to lose him.”

AS THIS TRAGICOMEDY PLAYED OUT IN Dallas, one of the greatest Americans, Martin Luther King Jr., was again in the headlines. The news, for the millions of us who revere him, was saddening: King, it was discovered, had plagiarized some of his academic writings, including parts of the dissertation for his doctoral degree.

The Stanford scholar who revealed the plagiarism is a longtime admirer of King and the custodian of King’s papers. He is also black, but he reported his findings because he is committed to the truth, and the belief, frighteningly rare in our time, that some things are even more important than race.

The affair as it happened was sad enough, though King’s indiscretions will fade to nothing beside his essential goodness and his courage as a leader. But think how much sadder the whole affair would have been had one thing been different. What if the scholar who revealed King’s plagiarism had been white? In our poisoned climate of opinion, angry demagogues across the country would have dismissed the findings as just another of the blue-eyed devil’s plots.

The conspiracy bug, it’s clear, bites black and white alike. On certain hot-button issues-gun control and abortion leap to mind-the foes don’t just see each other as wrong, but as malevolent, lying, sinful, subhuman beings who will do anything to seize or maintain power. Thus it is, increasingly, with issues of race-and there are more issues of race than ever before.

Which brings us to the real reason that a more inclusive city council structure will be good for Dallas. Because so few minorities have held office here, it’s possible for them to believe that merely changing the pigment of government will change their lives in wondrous ways. Given the intractibility of so many social ills today, and the gradual retreat of the federal and state government from Great Society-type spending programs, that’s extremely unlikely. But minorities deserve to try their hand at making the system work. They certainly can’t do worse than some white folks who get elected time and again.

We will know we have colorblind politics when African-Americans and Hispanics feel free to say that minority candidate A is a smart, honest woman while minority candidate B is an unprincipled, semi-literate hack. When they’ve thrown enough rascals in, they’ll be ready to throw some out, even if they happen to be black or brown. Heroes, villains, geniuses, dummies, saints, and scumbags come in all colors. When this city realizes that, look for the number of plots and conspiracies to rapidly decline.


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