Bissinger traces the racial history of Odessa, which since its founding has been effectively segregated into white, African American, and Latino communities. Many white residents, Bissinger writes, use the “n-word” casually, without concern for its offensiveness. Though there are some in the town—including Lanita Akins, one of the few prominent Democrats in the city, and a secretary at a petrochemical company in town—who argue passionately against this discriminatory culture in Odessa, most believe that, in fact, the forced federal integration of Odessa’s schools, in the early 1980s, made race relations more difficult, and “brought down” the level of Permian High’s academic achievement. However, there is no evidence to support this claim.
Odessa is almost, but not entirely, politically uniform. Many of the political representatives for the area are Republicans, in line with the ideals of Reagan and George H. W. Bush. But there is some opposition to these policies, especially in communities that feel marginalized by the national political conversation of the 1980s. For Latino and African American families in Odessa, there is often a feeling that “American” values are synonymous with white values, rather than encompassing the many different identities that make the country what it is.
Bissinger also traces some of the historical causes of ethnic distrust in the region. One man, Willie Hammond, Jr, was the first “black city councilman” and “the first black county commissioner” in the area. Akins (whose ethnicity Bissinger does not specify), when interviewed by Bissinger, describes how shocked she was, in the 1970s, to discover that Hammond had been arrested for “arson conspiracy,” in a plot to burn an old building and convert it into a civic center. Akins did not believe Hammond, who was esteemed in the community, was capable of such an act, and when Hammond admitted to guilt and was sentenced to prison, Akins and other supporters wondered about the state of black leadership in Odessa.
Many in Odessa’s African American community have a hard time believing that Hammond—who was considered by many to be a paragon of virtue—would stoop to criminality in order to further his agenda as a city councilmember. Hammond’s decision is difficult for the Southside of Odessa, and gives fuel to opponents of that very same community, largely on the east side—since Hammond’s behavior becomes, for Odessa’s whites, emblematic of a supposed “lawlessness” among minority communities in the region.
Another prominent African American leader in Odessa, a reverend named Laurence Hurd, was also arrested and convicted in the early 1980s, for burglary. Hurd spoke passionately for the rights of African Americans in Odessa, who long had been confined, officially and unofficially, to the part of town below the railroad tracks, called the Southside. Hurd argued that the town segregationist principles crippled the black community at the expense of the white—and that this distinction was evident in the quality of schools and other services on either side of the railroad. But Hurd, as Bissinger reports, is in prison by the late 1980s, serving his burglary sentence, and the town has no visible “black role models.”
What’s most difficult about Hurd’s eventual downfall is the cogency and influence of his arguments among engaged citizens in the Southside. Hurd is a forceful advocate for educational and social equality for black families in Odessa, and his imprisonment, like Hammond’s, only sets back the cause for which Hurd has spent a large portion of his life fighting.
Bissinger notes that racial inequality was most apparent through comparisons of he three schools in Ector County: Odessa High (the town’s first high school), Permian, and Ector High. Odessa was 93 percent white, Permian 99 percent, and Ector 90 percent minority. Forced federal integration in the early ‘80s led to the closure of Ector—because white residents in Odessa were unwilling to allow Permian students to be shifted to other schools, since they feared this would destroy the Panthers’ vaunted football culture.
Bissinger uses Permian as a case study in how well-intentioned desegregation efforts, on the federal level, can go wrong, especially when white families of influence in communities oppose exactly the measures that are intended to help level the educational playing field. Permian, even after desegregation in the 1980s, maintains its reputation as a largely “white” school, because it is located in a part of town that is, and remains, dominated by middle-class white families.
Hurd, as Bissinger reports (presumably having interviewed Hurd in prison in 1988) came to Odessa from New Mexico, where he had also encountered entrenched, institutional racism. During the football season of 1980, when Permian high won the state championship with a group of plucky, but relatively untalented, players—much to the delight and acclaim of white Odessans—Hurd led a movement on the Southside, to generate more attention toward a proposed federal desegregation of Odessa schools. Although Hurd’s plan was successful in pushing the issue, it resulted, however, in the closing of Ector High, the largely minority school. Federal officials believed this method “most efficient” in relieving segregation in the area, because Ector High was small, and its students could be sent either to Odessa or to Permian.
One of the starkest passages in the book, this section describes the Permian football culture—white and middle-class—on the one hand, and the struggle for civil rights happening in the African American community of Odessa, mere miles away. Hurd’s speeches galvanize the community and help attract the attention of federal regulators, who agree to ramp up efforts to officially and finally desegregate Odessa’s public high schools. Unfortunately, these efforts backfire, and result in the closing of Ector High, and the division of the African American community between the Permian and Odessa High Schools.
Bissinger notes, then, that a war of “gerrymandering” broke out, in the mid-1980s, where officials decided which parts of the Southside to send to Permian, and which to Odessa High. Despite the fact that Permian was, and remained, a largely white school, catering to the wealth and, mostly white east side of Odessa, large parts of the African American section of the Southside were also sent to Permian, since Permian officials believed these area rich in football talent. The rest of the Southside, largely Latino, went to Odessa High—Latino recruits were less highly praised as gifted by Permian’s coaches.
Although Bissinger does not explain directly why Latino players are perceived to be less talented than others on the football field, he does indicate that these cultural perceptions are merely that—perceptions, rather than observations grounded in fact. If anything, Bissinger takes pains to indicate that Permian’s football culture is a construct, something that can change if enough players, coaches, and fans want it to—for example, Brian Chavez, whose family is Latino, becomes a key contributor to Mojo football.
Bissinger closes the chapter by asking Hurd about his thoughts on football. Although Hurd believes football can be a source of good in a community, he also notes that the Permian football team is still mostly white, and that though some black players become star players, they are most important to Permian because they are good at sports—not because they are treated as equal members of the school community. Hurd states that black students in Odessa are made to believe that one of the only ways to a college degree is through athletics—a difficult standard that is not so stark in white communities, where good academics are also a route to college. Hurd rues the fact that, because he is in prison for a robbery committed out of rashness, his voice in the community no longer has the power and influence it did earlier in the 1980s.
Bissinger also describes a frustrating academic and racial divide, which stems from attitudes toward ethnicity and athleticism in the region. A talented white football player can, of course, earn a scholarship to play at the collegiate level, and so can a talented black player. But for white students, there is also the socially-esteemed option of getting good grades, and perhaps working hard at extracurricular activities, in order to gain admission to a competitive school. These options are technically open to African American and Latino students, too, but they are not emphasized within the institution of Permian itself—leading to the notion that people of color must gain athletic scholarships to go to college (and perhaps explaining why being a star and getting a scholarship is so important to Boobie Miles).