How Dallas County Accidentally Backed Reparations

Commissioners unanimously backed a resolution inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates's Atlantic cover story after they failed to listen to its contents.
The Dallas County Administration Building (Robert W. Howington/Flickr)

Since Ta-Nehisi Coates's cover story on reparations was published this month, he's been asked repeatedly whether he really thought reparations for African Americans were politically feasible. His answer has been consistent: maybe not, and certainly no time soon.

But it seems my colleague overlooked one important asset for the pro-reparations side: elected officials' short attention spans. That's how Dallas County, Texas, ended up adopting a resolution this week that backed significant monetary awards for the victims of racism. And in the Old Confederacy, no less!

Here's what happened: The Dallas County Commissioners Court* was voting on an item labeled in their agenda as the "Juneteenth Resolution," referring to the annual commemoration of June 19, 1865, arrival of U.S. troops in Texas to free slaves after the Civil War. John Wiley Price, the only black member of the commission and evidently something of a character, submitted the resolution, which for some reason wasn't sent around to commissioners ahead of time, nor was it posted on the commission website. Instead, Price read it aloud as his colleagues ignored him, perhaps playing tic-tac-toe or checking Twitter. Then the resolution came up for a voice vote and passed unanimously. (You can watch it here, starting around the 20-minute mark.)

It isn't as if Price didn't loudly declaim the resolution. Here's the crucial closing: 

Therefore, be it resolved in the Dallas County Commissioners Court that Juneteenth and its historical mimicking of freedom is just that, and that the United States of America is derelict in its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the African-American people. Be it further resolved that the dereliction that has caused 400 years of significant [inaudible] to millions and significant suffering to the descendants of those who have been enslaved Africans who built this country, should be satisfied with monetary and substantial reparations to same.

Yet it was only later that commissioners realized what they'd approved. Oops!

Price told the Dallas Morning News that he'd been inspired by Coates's article to sponsor the resolution, and that he didn't know why it hadn't been available ahead of time. (I still can't find a copy; I've called Price's office, and will post it if I can track it down.) Price's colleagues complained that they'd been deceived, but only lone Republican Mike Cantrell changed his vote, to an abstention, so the resolution stands.

In the entertaining local news report below, anchor Eric King asks, "What does this mean for the country?" In fact, it doesn't mean much for the country or the county: Since the resolution is nonbinding, don't expect Dallas to start calculating formulas and cutting checks any time soon.

Still, it wouldn't be the first mistaken vote to have major policy consequences. Maybe this could be the spark for a nationwide movement. But one note for Judge Price: It's pronounced "Ta-nuh-HA-see."


* The court is housed in the former Texas School Book Depository, the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy, a fact I couldn't possibly make up.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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