July 2016 will likely go down in the history of our nation as a catalytic time for our collective conversation on race. In Dallas our need to diagnose and assess the tension between law enforcement and the black community has been furious and urgent. As vicar of St. Augustine’s Oak Cliff, which is blessed with a glorious diversity of black, white, Asian, and Latino members, I, as a white man, have had much to learn and much to try to understand in these trying days.
As Will Brown and Esau McCaulley have already noted on this blog (see here and here), for the first time in a while, our city and our country are opening up conversations about violence and racism that have simmered under the surface for years. This is timely and necessary. Nevertheless, the speed and pervasiveness of our media environment don’t make it easy to have this conversation. Since Dallas, violence against police has risen in Baton Rouge, and more violence has stoked fears abroad in Nice, Turkey, and Bavaria.
How can we continue to make sense of the violence in Dallas, if there’s so much more senseless violence to process as well?
As Christopher Haugh recently noted in The Atlantic, the Dallas of today no longer deserves the “City of Hate” moniker it earned after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Progress in the police department and in the city at large have led to marked improvements in the city’s image. But from what depths was Dallas coming?
Two books have been helpful for me to gather perspective on the city’s complicated history of race relations.
The first, called “the most dangerous book in Dallas,” is The Accommodation: The Politics of Race in an American City (Citadel Press, 1987) by Jim Schutze. Now long out of print, The Accommodation circulates around Dallas and the Internet as a samizdat pdf. Used copies sell on Amazon for hundreds of dollars. Schutze’s book focuses on the complicated racial history of South Dallas, Fair Park, white business elites, and black pastors. Its boldest claim is that Dallas’s relatively peaceful time during Civil Rights ultimately prevented the progress made by other southern cities such as Atlanta or Birmingham.
I learned about the book from another white pastor serving a predominantly black congregation in South Dallas, and received it from a conspiracy-theorist friend I know from my local Oak Cliff coffee shop. Schutze’s book is provocative, sensationalist, and altogether condemns the white elites and black pastors who struck a peaceful accommodation that kept a glass ceiling in place for blacks in Dallas well into the 1980s.
Thankfully, Michael Phillips’s White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001 (University of Texas Press, 2006) is much more widely available and more thoroughly researched, including endnote citations. The work stems from his 2002 dissertation on “Racial, Regional, and Religious Identities in Dallas, TX” for the University of Texas at Austin, and provides an analysis of the city’s racial challenges through the lens of an emerging “White Studies” historiographical methodology. Of interest to readers of this blog might be Phillips’s research into the influence of Dispensationalist theology in the preaching of C.I. Scofield (to incorporate Dallas Jewry into a broader “white” identity) and the preaching of W.A. Criswell (in opposition to integration).
Reading significant portions of both books in the last year, I couldn’t immediately discern whether the Dallas of today had grown past the deeply entrenched issues of its past, or if our city would continue to be mired in these deep racial divides for generations to come. Seeing the response of Chief David O. Brown, himself an Oak Cliff native, and the broader response of the community, I see reasons to hope.
Yet, as a white pastor of parishioners whose stories and histories are reflected in these books, I know I still have much more listening, learning, and praying to do before I can say for sure.
The featured image comes via Adam Simmons, and is licensed under Creative Commons.