For the second time in more than half a century, Dallas is at the center of a seminal moment in our history. It’s a moment set against imploding national anxiety and anger, stark racial divisions, black-and-white outrage and violence that haunt us.
If ever the phrase “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold” fits a time, this may be it, a moment that perhaps more brutally than other horrifying racial tragedies in the past few years exemplifies the devolving breakdown of America.
The ambush and killing of police officers in downtown Dallas brings to mind, among other things, the specter of “two societies, one black, one white, separate but unequal” that the 1968 Kerner Commission report warned against after the devastating riots in Detroit and Los Angeles.
Now, nearly 50 years later, anger at recent police shootings of African-American men has exploded on our streets. This comes, not by chance, at the same time that white resentment of blacks and other minorities has reached a boiling point, stoked in part by the racist and populist politics of the Trump presidential campaign.
It’s an explosive mixture, and it all came to a head last week in Dallas.
By now the news is turning into history: Following the police killing of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, a heavily armed black Army veteran, aiming to kill white policemen as payback for black deaths at the hands of law enforcers, attacked police officers escorting a march in downtown Dallas last Thursday.
The carnage was the most deadly assault on U.S. police officers since 9/11.
For Dallas, this was a recurring nightmare, dredging a dreadful past when the city was known worldwide as the “City of Hate” after the assassination of John F. Kennedy there on Nov. 22, 1963.
For me and millions of my ’60s generation, it is personal, too, resurrecting memories of a national trauma which transformed us and America.
I’ve been fond of Dallas for many years. My family lives in Texas, in Dallas and Austin, and I visit often. The news hit especially hard.
I instantly thought, once again it happened in Dallas. In 1963, Dallas became the picture of extreme right-wing America. It was perhaps an unfair image, a stereotype of Big D, big oil, big hair, big boobs, and Dallas lived with that image for more than half a century.
Addressing that issue head-on on Sunday, an editorial on the front page of The Dallas Morning News said: “This city, our city, has been tested before. Now we face a new test.” Then it asked, “Why us? Why now?”
Unlike the post-1963 years, when the Dallas Police Department was an embarrassment to the nation, and Dallas officials, law enforcement officers and residents put up walls of silence, excuses and shame, the Dallas Morning News editorial grappled with tough questions straightaway.
“Here in Dallas, we have not found answers that satisfy,’’ the editorial said. “We live in a place of new beginnings, of immigrants, and of job seekers…
“But there is another truth about Dallas. We live together, but we do not often understand one another. This is because of class, sometimes geography and often race.”
I hardly remember Dallas 1963, but I’m familiar with Dallas today.
Then it was a white city of some 700,000 people, including a marginalized Mexican immigrant population. Today, it is a vibrant majority-minority city, 42 percent Latino, 28 percent white and 25 percent African American.
Blacks have served as mayor and local officials and now chief of police. Dallas votes Democratic, has more than 1.3 million people and ranks among the top 10 biggest cities in the United States.
It is so diverse that more than 70 languages are spoken in its public schools. It has top-tier restaurants, arts and music scenes, a renaissance downtown, and a civic-minded elite.
Political repercussions are yet unknown but we can guess. Political positions have hardened across the nation. Our common ground has nearly vanished.
In Dallas, flowers, blue balloons and messages of sympathy gather at a memorial for the dead officers. Black and white visitors have been paying respects. But the danger seems palpable, and Chief David O. Brown acknowledged that his officers are exhausted and the city is on edge.
President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush will appear together in Dallas on Tuesday. Perhaps Dallas will help salve the nation’s wounds, and perhaps Obama and Bush will give the nation the heart and guts to come together.
Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, a journalist and writer based in New York City, is a professor at Fordham University and a former editor at The New York Times.