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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Dallas was shaped by racism. Now, the city has a plan to address the sins of the past

an aerial view of downtown Dallas and the Trinity River.
Graham Coreil-Allen
/
Flickr
The Trinity River and Interstate 30 serve as de-facto dividing lines between some of Dallas' wealthiest and least-advantaged neighborhoods.

Dallas' Racial Equity Plan would­­ affect decision-making across departments, impacting policing and public safety, housing and infrastructure, environmental justice and economic development.

City officials have put together a sweeping plan to make policy and city resource decisions with careful attention to racial and class disparities. And dozens of the equity priorities are funded in the city manager’s proposed budget.

The Racial Equity Plan is an attempt to address a long, racist history that helped shape a deeply divided city where opportunity and outcomes vary widely by ZIP code. It has the potential to mobilize every corner of city governance to reduce disparities and level the playing field.

For most of its history, the city of Dallas pursued policies that promoted segregation and the prosperity of white people, while underserving — and often undermining — Black and Latino prosperity.

In big and small decisions, city officials historically put their thumbs on the scale for white Dallas in decisions big and small. White preferences and outcomes were considered in deciding which neighborhoods got infrastructure improvements, which businesses won city contracts, where polluting industries were permitted to operate, and where public amenities were built.

Communities of color were disinvested and consistently underserved.

“We know how things are today, but the question is how did we get here today? How were the communities intentionally — and that’s the key word, intentionally — underinvested and underdeveloped by people who sit where we sit?” Council member Casey Thomas said at a recent council meeting.

Persistent problems

In more recent years, as the city often tried to spread city resources equally, the newfound commitment to equality did little to close the gaps in a segregated city shaped by white-privileging policies.

On pretty much every major health, economic, housing, education and quality of life indicator, people of color in Dallas come out worse than white people.

“I think that it’s a very clear understanding of what equity is versus equality. Because equality does not do the people who’ve already been forgotten about any justice because they’re already starting on a playing field that is level,” council member Adam Bazaldua said earlier this month.

In spring of 2021, the city council approved a resolution directing city staff to create a plan that makes the idea of racial equity an operational reality.

The plan, finalized this summer, includes more than 200 measurable, concrete goals to be executed across dozens of city departments, and the city plans to make progress on these equity indicators accessible to the public in an online dashboard.

“The Racial Equity Plan will guide departments and offices to enhance current plans, policies, initiatives with measurable goals that will address racial, ethnic and socioeconomic equity,” said Lindsey Wilson, director of the city’s Office of Racial Equity and Inclusion.

The plan focuses on reducing disparities across five key areas: infrastructure, public safety and wellness, housing, economic opportunity, and environmental justice.

Daunting inequities

Across Dallas today, major indicators for health and economic prosperity show consistently worse outcomes for Black and Latino residents.

Predominantly Black and Latino areas have fewer banks, doctors’ offices and grocery stores. And many neighborhoods where lower-income Black and Latino residents live are infrastructure deserts, according to recent SMU research.

Housing statistics tell a similar story: Just over a quarter of Black households in Dallas own their homes, half the rate of white homeownership. Roughly 45% of Latino and Asian families in Dallas are homeowners, compared to 56% of white ones. On the other end of housing security, Black people are massively overrepresented among Dallas’ homeless population.

The plan lists a dozen housing-related goals. Those include:

  • Building more affordable housing and putting it in neighborhoods with better schools and more jobs.
  • Assisting immigrants who don’t have a credit history get mortgages.
  • Improving sidewalks, lighting and other amenities in neighborhoods of color.
  • And helping people avoid losing their homes as neighborhoods gentrify.

On environmental justice, the plan would, among other objectives, add more air monitors in “equity priority areas” to address the higher rates of chronic health problems like asthmaamong kids of color in Dallas. It would eliminate industrial zoning in residential areas — a problem disproportionately affecting communities of color — and improve efforts to curb and mitigate illegal dumping.

The plan’s priorities on public safety include increasing mental health resources and reducing gun crimes, reducing the number of youth of color sent to juvenile detention and setting up jail and prosecution alternatives for low-level crimes, and increasing the number of sites where people can file complaints about police misconduct.

Challenges and opportunities

The city wasn't the only actor creating the policies that drive today’s disparities — laws, policies and practices at the state and federal level, as well as the private sector bear plenty of the blame — which raises the reality that the city can only do so much on its own to reduce inequities.

For example, while the plan has measures to improve economic opportunities, state law prohibits the city from forcing employers to pay living wages or offer paid time off. Much of the city’s power lies in incentives, carrots where it lacks sticks.

There’s also risk of backlash at a time when racial equity is a political flashpoint. How city leaders sell the idea plan is critical.

In a city council briefing on the finalized plan earlier this month, City Manager T.C. Broadnax argued that the plan is as much moral responsibility as pecuniary imperative.

“Data continues to demonstrate that advancing racial equity is both a social goal and a driver of economic and business growth,” Broadnax said.

And then there’s a sense of plan-fatigue that council member Tennell Atkins pointed to. Especially in the southern sector, he says there’s a feeling that the city is always talking about change, but people don’t see much of it.

“We gotta go to the community, to speak to the community, [where they] say ‘Yeah, y’all talk about equity, but I still need my streets fixed. I still don’t have my trash pickup. I still don’t have enough police officers. I still don’t have fair housing,’” Atkins said. “So think about it…and put dollars behind the word equity in the budget.”

While the city budget is still being hashed out, the budget proposed by Dallas city manager T.C. Broadnax includes funding to at least get started on many of the 200-plus goals defined in the Racial Equity Plan. Each department was charged with addressing racial equity in its budget requests. And, indeed, the word equity appears more than 400 times in the spending plan’s 769 pages.

Some goals will rely on funding in the 2024 bond package, which the city is just beginning to put together. But many of the big investments in the Racial Equity Plan are happening sooner rather than later because a lot of federal money is on the table from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan and infrastructure bill.

For example, the availability of federal funds allowed the city to cut its plan to improve water and wastewater infrastructure to currently unserved areas where people live from seven years to three years.

Assuming the city council members approve the Racial Equity Plan, the real test of their commitment to racial equity comes as they negotiate the city budget for the next fiscal year, deciding how to add racial equity into the rest of the priorities they face for their districts.

Update at 12:41pm - The Dallas City Council voted Wednesday afternoon to approve the Racial Equity Plan. Fourteen voted in favor of the plan, with council member Cara Mendelsohn voting against it. She said she wanted a different direction for the plan and that she considers it "bad policy."

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at cconnelly@kera.org.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, considermaking a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.