Wednesday, February 28, 2024 Feb 28, 2024
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Dallas ISD’s Fight to Fix the Most Racist Map of Dallas

Red lining ruined parts of the city. Eighty years later, DISD aims to make reparations.
By Jim Schutze |
Map of Dallas 1937
Come November, Dallas voters will decide on a bond proposal that is a record-breaking mammoth. If authorized, the $3.7 billion package will be the biggest borrowing ever for any local unit of government in state history, according to data from the Texas Bond Review Board. It goes to voters at a totally crazy time, when nobody knows how we will vote. And buried in the proposal is an explosive concept: reparations. The word alone elicits responses ranging from inappropriate behavior to brain aneurysm. This will be exciting to watch.

It may also be an ingenious response to this moment in time and maybe the smartest move we’ve ever made. For one thing, the system we have used for years for spending school bond money was always junk. In the past, the bond money has been divvied up according to two schemes, one fake and the other regrettably real. The fake one, based mainly on student population, supposedly allotted bond money where needed for building new facilities or fixing old ones. The other scheme, the real one, was a system of straight-up political patronage. It handed out bond money according to where it was needed to get activist parents off the school board’s back and get the school board reelected. 

The new bond proposal sets aside $41 million for what is being called “equity in bond planning.” In this money are the tears we shed for George Floyd and the pain we feel for our terrible racial division. It’s also the part that could be called reparations.

This is a pilot program. The core idea is that the $41 million, a relatively minor portion of the total bond, would be apportioned according to a set of criteria and priorities never before used for bond money. Based on what the school district is calling a Community Resource Index, or CRI, the money would be spent on buildings and facilities designed to offset some of the most extreme effects of poverty and racial segregation in communities near four target schools. 

It’s hard to argue with the underlying assumption: children do better in school when they are not hungry, sick, or terrified. But it’s easy to debate the implementation. 

The debate on the $41 million equity bond money is probably less about what that money will be used for than what it will be called. Less than two weeks after the May 25 killing of Floyd in Minneapolis, Dallas School Board trustee Miguel Solis, the force behind the new equity effort, described it in the Dallas Morning News using the hot-button term “reparations.”

Solis is Hispanic. Sorry. I tried to think of some way I could get out of this without having to race-label everybody, which I hate doing. But this is about race labels. (I’m White.)

The new bond proposal sets aside $41 million for what is being called “equity in bond planning.” In this money are the tears we shed for George Floyd and the pain we feel for our terrible racial division. It’s also the part that could be called reparations.

I talked to Solis a week after his editorial piece ran in the paper and asked if anyone had burned a cross yet in his yard yet. He said, “I didn’t receive one negative comment about the op-ed that I wrote in which I explicitly used the term ‘reparation’ multiple times.”

But I also talked to Drexell Owusu, co-chair of the 2020 Citizens Bond Steering Committee, who told me he would be happy if nobody ever used that word again in relation to the bond. Owusu is Black. He wasn’t ragging on Solis. But he made two points. 

The word “reparation,” he said, is crazily weaponized in a way that could harm the whole bond. And serious inequity is serious inequity no matter what race kids are. “If every kid looked exactly the same, whether they were White or not White or whatever,” Owusu said, “if every kid faced the exact same scenario, wouldn’t you want this kind of effort in your community, too?”

Three years ago, Solis, then president of the school board, led a tortuous but successful effort to persuade the board to adopt racial equity as a primary approach to education. The board’s resolution said: “We recognize historical decisions have created barriers that no child should be forced to overcome and our direct capacity to eliminate these conditions is limited, but we also believe that a high-quality public education provides all children the best chance to enhance their lives.”

Easier said than done, of course. As the ongoing debate on Confederate monuments illustrates, we can’t even get past the history. And yet that’s the door we have to go through first.

Current Dallas School Board President Justin Henry, who is Black, told me a story recently about having toured Berlin as a young law student. He was astonished by Germany’s ongoing living confrontation with its Nazi past. “Visiting Berlin was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life,” Henry told me. “Not only did they have to acknowledge what happened there, and not only did they tear down monuments of what happened, they also erected monuments to honor the people that were victimized.”

The equity piece of the bond began there, with an investigation of past government policies, decisions that have had direct effects on the present. The work product of that effort was jaw-dropping. 

At a special school board briefing in January, almost all of the trustees present were clearly stunned by what staff showed them. The smoking gun was a map of 1930s and ’40s federal home mortgage policies that effectively barred banks from making mortgage or small-business loans in minority neighborhoods in Dallas, even when people in those areas had the same or better credit ratings than people and businesses in White areas where loans were encouraged and subsidized by the government.

From my own research for a book I wrote in the 1980s on the history of race relations in Dallas—based on grand jury proceedings, newspaper stories, interviews, and other documentation—I could offer evidence of more overt aggression against Black citizens who attempted to move out of the officially ghettoized neighborhoods in Dallas. In the 1950s, a special Dallas County grand jury under legendary District Attorney Henry Wade found evidence of White church groups hiring known criminals to carry out bombings of Black folks who dared buy homes in White neighborhoods. City Hall over subsequent years has employed an array of policies and actions ranging from heavy-handed use of eminent domain to withholding of basic urban infrastructure, which taken together have had the effect of raising and hardening the ghetto walls.

But in my watching of that school board briefing in January, I didn’t get the impression it was the history alone that was taking the breath away from the board members. It was more the way the footprint of that history so precisely matches the present. District staff presented a sophisticated statistical portrait of the city based on the Community Resource Index. The portrait compared two present-day census tracts in Dallas, one that was “red lined,” or cut off from government support in the 1940s, and the other “green lined,” or slated for government support and subsidy. 

Today, 80 years later, the median income in the red-lined tract is less than 20 percent of what it is in the green-lined tract. The poverty rate is four times higher. In the red-lined tract, house values are 25 percent, and the ratio of people with bachelor’s degrees is a quarter of those in the green-lined tract.

Government policy clearly helped create this map of inequity. The equity bond program is an attempt to use intentional government policy and investment to offset that damage. 

General obligation bond money by law cannot be used for programs or operations. It can be spent only for capital investment—brick-and-mortar construction or equipment that counts as capital, not ongoing operational expense. The specific plans for this effort are still a little up in the air. 

In the 1950s, a special Dallas County grand jury under legendary District Attorney Henry Wade found evidence of White church groups hiring known criminals to carry out bombings of Black folks who dared buy homes in White neighborhoods. 

I sat in on one of several community input Zoom meetings the district is holding for people who live near the four target schools where this money would go. Based on the CRI, the district has chosen to begin the program with communities near Lincoln Humanities and Communications Magnet High School in southern Dallas, Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Oak Cliff, L.G. Pinkston High School in West Dallas, and H. Grady Spruce High School in Pleasant Grove. The meeting was a little bumpy. The staff has been hounded by the board not to impose top-down ideas on communities but to first ask communities what they want. My impression from the meeting I attended was that, when you ask, the communities want less poverty. Understandable.

But this may call for some top-down leadership. The specific ideas I have heard bounced around are things like space for grocery stores, healthcare clinics, pro bono legal services, and maybe a social work reference service simply to steer people to what’s already available elsewhere. It’s a great shame that the mayor and City Council have not stepped forward more aggressively to join hands with this effort, because they control many of the resources we’re talking about. Maybe before November they will all take anti-inertia pills.

Some people I know who took part in the George Floyd marches had a plaintive question afterward: “What can I do?” I heard it as asking what can any of us do, really? What will make a real difference? 

It’s a wonderful question, a question about true healing. If this equity bond idea achieves even a small measure of true healing, will that make it about reparations? If it works, will we care?   

Write to [email protected]. 

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