It was about 6 o’clock on a March afternoon-a Monday, I think. I took my usual walk through the neighborhood around sundown. The kids were playing outside. The birds were singing. There were no moving vans in the streets. Life was going on as usual.
But something was very, very different. I was in Diane Ragsdale’s district.
Maybe things were so calm because my neighbors just hadn’t heard the news. You see, they were in Diane Ragsdale’s district too. It wasn’t because a tornado had picked our neighborhood up and sent us spinning into Fair Park or regions south. Actually, we had stayed where we were. Diane Ragsdale’s district had come to us.
Yes, for one brief, confusing moment, courtesy of the 14-1 committee’s imaginative gerrymandering, we were residents of District 5, population 70,301, one of the more “diverse” districts that existed on paper for a few days before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals put the kibosh on the May 4 14-1 election, which led to the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which okayed the 5th’s action and set Dallas on a course for a summer or fall election under 10-4-1, 14-1, or whatever. Someone, perhaps Randy Quaid, will get back to us later with more details. So I am not, as I write, Diane Ragsdale’s constituent. But if the Justice Department finds 10-4-1 lacking in racial justice, I may be right back in her sector. And you know, that won’t bother me a bit.
I’m serious. Yes, I know that some of my neighbors wailed and gnashed their teeth during our brief stay in District 5. For sure, some of us didn’t think we had much in common with the bulk of our new co-constituents. According to The Dallas Morning News, the district is 66.2 percent black, 14.41 percent Hispanic, and 19.39 percent white and “other.” The median home value is $38,729. The median annual household income is $16,413. About 14 percent of residents have attended college. About half of them rent.
I didn’t exactly see myself mirrored in my new political homeland. But I disagreed strongly with one neighbor, a normally savvy individual who told me that the Ragsdalization of our neighborhood was the absolute living end.
“That’s it,” she told me. “We’ll never get a phone call returned. We’ll be the forgotten white tribe. The potholes will swallow our cars.”
To explain why I don’t share my friend’s despair, I must confess a bizarre secret, a hidden obsession that makes me a member of one of the tiniest, most misunderstood minority groups in America.
You see, I love politics. There, it’s out. And further, I think the gerrymandered districts of 14-1 could actually be a force for racial harmony. Some people claim the districts “destroy neighborhoods” and break up “communities of interest.” Would I be a sappy, goose-livered Pollyanna to suggest that the new districts might create new “communities of interest?”
Because I love politics (despite all its disappointments and betrayals), I can face life with Diane. After all, politics is about splitting the pie-who gets to hold the knife, and who gets which slice. Politics, as Willie Stark vividly puts it in All the King’s Men, is two people in bed on a cold night and a blanket that won’t quite cover them both, so there’s always some tugging and adjusting to do.
Say what you want about Ragsdale’s sandpaper style, but she’s never lost sight of that cardinal truth. She’s argued passionately that her people have never gotten their share of the pie or enough of the blanket to keep their feet warm. On that score she’s absolutely right, and if you’ll ponder the fact that a median household income of $16,413 means that half the families make less than that, you’ll start to see what she means. While I think Ragsdale errs by blaming racism for too many of our city’s ills (it’s a plague on society, but not the only one), I’ve never voted for a politician who didn’t have blind spots. I’d always rather cast my ballot for Lincoln, Jefferson, or Martin Luther King Jr., but they’re not running this time.
None of which guarantees my vote for Ragsdale if the Justice Department decrees that our little fingernail of farthest East Dallas should indeed be joined to the hand reaching out from South Dallas. I’ll go to meetings and hear out the candidates, listen to the promises and read the literature. Needless to say, I won’t vote for anyone who’s professionally or ideologically opposed to my skin color (pinkish beige to peeling brown, depending on the season), any more than a thinking black voter would support George Wallace, circa 1968, or some other segregationist whose political future depended on color-consciousness.
Given the likely composition of District 5, I hope that no white knight tries to mount some reactionary damn-the-judges campaign-call it Casper’s last stand-and siphon off the pinkish-beige vote. If that happens, the winner will see that he or she can get elected without us, and then we really won’t get our phone calls returned. That’s politics. If you don’t help build the house, you don’t get invited to the housewarming.
But whether the candidate’s skin is tan, alabaster, or coppery, I hope he or she understands that race-based politics is a stage we must pass through-a process, not an end in itself. We’ve got to work through all this divisive rhetoric about Afro-this and Euro-that. When I hear myself branded an “Anglo” or “European-American,” I always picture myself in a beret, riding a monorail to a beer hall. Africa and Europe have much to teach us, but we’re aiming for something neither civilization achieved. We need to be building bridges, not walls.
And that can happen. When I got home from my walk that night, there were two messages on the machine for my wife, who is a precinct chairperson. The 14-1 map was just hot off the computer, but potential candidates were already hitting the phones, lining up support. One man listed his areas of disagreement with Ragsdale and told Ann that he was really looking forward to working with “you people.”
Well, maybe he meant, “you Far East Dallas people.” Anyway, I’m looking forward to meeting him. This should be fun.