Published Online: February 26, 1997

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Dallas Board Is Buffeted by Racial Unrest

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Dallas

When African-American activists began their latest protest at a school board meeting here this month, Ernest Pena decided he'd had enough. Voicing a sentiment shared by other local Latino activists, he remarked from the back of the auditorium that the protesters were no better than the Ku Klux Klan.

Aaron Michaels, a leader in the Dallas chapter of the New Black Panther Party, wasn't going to take that sitting down. Wheeling and confronting Mr. Pena, Mr. Michaels demanded that the Hispanic parent repeat his remark, reportedly uttering an obscenity along the way.

As board President Bill Keever pounded the gavel and school police converged, the men and their allies tangled in the aisle. A school custodian allegedly involved in the scuffle was led away in handcuffs and later charged with assaulting a security guard.

Like skirmishes among sports fans in the stands, the confrontation Feb. 11 was an extension of the main event. In this city, race has long been an unpublished item on virtually every board of education agenda.

The tensions have intensified in recent months as bitter verbal volleys between black activists and the board and superintendent have repeatedly brought business to a standstill and garnered the nation's 10th-largest school system unwelcome notoriety.

In May, the school board made national news after police wrestled to the ground and arrested three members of the New Black Panther Party who had refused Mr. Keever's orders to sit down. Group members vowed to return armed with rifles or shotguns, a threat that never materialized.

Not until this month, however, had members of opposing camps actually come to blows. With that threshold crossed, many observers believe events could go one of two ways: Either people will cool down and civility will prevail, or things could really get ugly.

Unrest Has Deep Roots

So how did matters get to this point?

Racial tension has been a reality of education politics here since at least the 1950s, when the district began its slow march away from separate schools for blacks and whites. And though Dallas avoided the overt turmoil that afflicted cities elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s, that didn't mean race relations were rosy.

"The segregation in Dallas was among the ugliest of any city," said Sandy Kress, a prominent white lawyer who was the school board president for two years before leaving the panel last year. "There is a lot of legitimate anger in the African-American community about that long history."

Beyond that legacy, the recent unrest stems from several more immediate causes.

Among them is the likely prospect that this summer will mark the end of a quarter-century of federal oversight of the district's desegregation efforts. In July 1994, U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders said he would dismiss the lawsuit in three years if the district tried in good faith to comply with his orders.

Many whites and Hispanics complain that the case has channeled too much money and staff to predominantly black schools. Black leaders, on the other hand, fear losing those resources, and chide the district for failing to close the achievement gap between whites and African-Americans.

Kathlyn Gilliam, a 23-year school board veteran and arguably the most combative of its three black members, articulated such concerns at the Feb. 11 meeting.

"What in the world would you people do with free rein?" she asked her fellow members. "At least the court provides some semblance of restraint."

Latino Ranks Swelling

Another source of friction is the rapid rise in the city's Hispanic population and the growing pressure from Latinos for more sway in the system.

This school year, Latinos displaced blacks as the largest ethnic group among the city's 155,000 students. The student body is 45.5 percent Hispanic and 41.5 black. In less than a decade, officials expect Latinos to outnumber blacks by 2-to-1.

Yvonne Gonzalez, who last month became the district's first Hispanic superintendent, symbolizes the shifting demographics. The board's three African-American members boycotted the vote to appoint her, complaining that their colleagues had disregarded their views and failed to give other finalists a chance. ("Hiring of Hispanic Sparks Tensions in Dallas," Jan. 29, 1997.)

Ms. Gonzalez views the attacks on her from some activists as racially motivated. And she has not shied from telling them so.

"There was a concerted effort to humiliate me. Blacks starting identifying me as a 'white Hispanic,'" Ms. Gonzalez said in an interview. "I couldn't go to a single meeting without being heckled and taunted. They surrounded my car. They screamed in my face. They've told me to go back to Mexico."

Ms. Gonzalez, who joined the district last winter as the deputy superintendent and took over the top job when former Superintendent Chad Woolery, who is white, left in June. She believes her resilience has surprised some of her adversaries.

"There are people in the militant groups who never thought I would remain standing," she said.

To Jesse Diaz, an outspoken Latino leader, the issue is one of sharing the pie. He points out that blacks make up 50 percent of the district's administrative staff, compared with 22 percent for Hispanics. And he contends that many of those supervisors routinely shut Latinos out of jobs as cafeteria workers, classroom aides, custodians, and other posts.

"Blacks have always complained about being discriminated against, but they're doing the same thing to us that the Anglos did to them," said Mr. Diaz, the president of a local council of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a national advocacy group. "The oppressed have become the oppressors."

'A Power Question'

Glenn Linden, a professor of history and education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the author of a recent book on the district's 40-year desegregation saga, said such conflicts in Dallas are relatively new.

"For years, blacks and Hispanics worked together," he said. "What's emerging now is a struggle over resources. I think blacks are scared they'll lose the little resources they've got."

An additional sore point is the makeup of the school board itself.

The panel's three black members complain that their wishes have long been ignored by a shifting alliance of white and Latino trustees. The black members refer to the coalition as the "Slam Dunk Gang" for its alleged practice of ramming through changes without consulting the minority.

Matters weren't helped in 1995, when a white board member resigned after being captured on tape making racist remarks about blacks and disparaging comments about other groups. ("Racist, Sexist Remarks Put Dallas Board on Edge," Nov. 8, 1995.)

"It's a power question," said Yvonne Ewell, an African-American who joined the board a decade ago after retiring from an administrative post in the district. "As long as the power relationships are unhealthy, we will never have good race relations."

Ms. Ewell and other black leaders often cast the five white members of the nine-member panel as tools of the city's corporate elite. They say business leaders and their purported board allies are intent on controlling the system and its $1 billion budget even though white enrollment has dwindled to little more than one in 10.

Many are calling for an African-American board president.

"There's 90 percent minority students here, and it's controlled by whites," Lee Alcorn, the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said of the district. "There are no school districts that are 90 percent white that are run by blacks."

Mr. Kress, who came to office in 1993 with a detailed reform agenda crafted by a citizens' commission he headed, believes much of the bad feeling comes from the board's subsequent reform efforts. Administrators were removed or demoted in the process, he said, often over the objections of the African-American board members.

"Most of the reaction that you're seeing in Dallas today is to these changes that moved the system from one of politics and patronage to one of merit and accountability," he asserted. "The problem is we disturbed too many nests."

Board Cracks Down

In the wake of this month's disrupted meeting, board members have approved a tougher code of conduct for citizens attending the gatherings. The revised policy prohibits such tactics as approaching the speakers' microphone en masse, standing in the aisles, and ignoring the three-minute limit for addressing the board. Violators will be subject to removal and arrest by city police.

Some board members and top school officials were heartened that the new rules were approved unanimously. But Ms. Ewell said they should not make too much of the black members' willingness to go along, and African-American activists made clear that the rules would not deter them.

"It's not going to matter at all," said Robert Williams, the president of the local chapter of the New Black Panther Party, in an assessment echoed by Mr. Alcorn of the NAACP.

Mr. Williams said other African-American groups, including the NAACP, had trouble getting heard at board meetings until he and a handful of his black-bereted members began showing up last year.

Despite its name, Mr. Williams said his party is not affiliated with the original Black Panther Party that was prominent in the 1960s and 1970s. He said the new party had no national headquarters but that the group's roughly 20 active members in Dallas keep in touch with branches in other cities.

"They keep trying to make us back down but it's not going to happen," Mr. Williams said. "We're going to keep coming."

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