WHITE MAN’S BURDEN A Dallas suburb struggles with its sudden diversity. By Dave Mann MIhe city of Irving, Texas, has long been known as a genteel white suburbfed first by white flight from nearby Dallas and later by the arrival of headquarters for international corporations such as Exxon Mobil Corp. It’s also known as the home of the Dallas Cowboys. Driving into Irving from the east, you’re greeted by the town’s most recognizable building: whitedomed Texas Stadium, with its iconic hole in the roof under which the Cowboys played home games for 37 years. But Irving is changing fast. The Cowboys have decamped to Arlington-3o minutes to the southwestwhere they’ll play in a new stadium this fall. Texas Stadium will be demolished. More significantly, Irvinglike many suburbs, and most of Texas for that matteris becoming much less white. According to the latest Census Bureau figures, in 2007 Latinos made up about 41 percent of Irving’s population. Latino families have been moving to Irving for the same reasons as Anglos: affordable housing, quality of life, low crime, good schools. The city’s makeup has changed at a stunning pace. In the 1980 census, Irving was 93-percent white. Latinos are now the biggest group, and Anglos the minority. Many expect the 2010 census to put the Latino population at more than 50 percent. You don’t need the census figures to see Irving’s changing demographics. Just wander around town. Many restaurant signs and billboards are in Spanish. Even at the Barnes & Noble inside the Irving Malla place you might expect to find teeming with white folksthere is a large section of Spanish books. At the Starbucks across the street, customers on a recent Friday morning were ordering lattes en Espanol. Yet one place in Irving remains unchangedcity hall. Anglos make up 35 percent of the population, but the mayor and all eight City Council members are white. Those officials, and the sliver of the population that elects them, are clinging to power. The city has tried to stem the influx of Latinos with tough-on-the-poor housing policies and zerotolerance of undocumented immigrants. The white elite has maintained control with an election system that makes it nearly impossible for a Latino or African-American candidateor 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 21, 2009 any outsiderto win elected office, and the city has rebuffed numerous attempts to alter the system. That impasse may be ending, thanks largely to a 68-year-old, retired aircraft mechanic named Manny Benavidez. A longtime Irving resident, Benavidez has twice run for the school board and lost. In Irving, city officials are elected through at-large, citywide voting. Though each council and school board member represents a certain section of town, all are elected citywide. Many large cities in Texas and across the country allow voters in each district to elect their representatives. Single-member districts have proved successful as a way for African-American and Latino neighborhoods to elect minority candidates. Not in Irving, though, at least not yet. Benavidez, along with many Latino community leaders, believes the voting system is unfair. So he found a bulldog Dallas attorney and, in November 2007, sued Irving in federal court, claiming that the city’s at-large voting system is discriminatory and violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act. On July 15, a federal district judge in Dallas agreed with Benavidez, ruling that Irving’s system had illegally barred minorities from winning city elections. The court forbade the city from holding another City Council election until it institutes single-member districts. “The voting system was obviously pernicious,” says Bill Brewer, the Dallas attorney who argued Benavidez’s case. “It was designed to exclude minorities from local government.” Whether or not it was designed to keep minorities out of power, there’s no denying that has been the effect. Only one African-American has ever served on the Irving City Council, though the city of more than 200,000 is about 12 percent African-American. One former council member was halfLatino, though he didn’t have a Latino name and didn’t identify with that community. The seven-member school board historically has been all-white, although it’s had slightly more diversity than the council: Two African-Americans were elected recently. No Latinos currently serve on the school board. Some are holding on to the status quo. The City Council voted in early August to appeal the federal court order to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, even as city leaders negotiate with Brewer to settle the lawsuit and compromise on some form Anglos make up just 35 percent of Irving’s population, but the mayor and all eight City Council members are white.
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