Maybe Northern and Southern Dallas Should Consider a Free-Trade Pact

Forever the foreigner. More than 30 years I've been here, sawing this same log. How many bazillion articles have I written about race in Dallas? I wrote a book about it, and I still don't get it. My wife is right. Once a carpetbagger, always a carpetbagger.

Last week I sat listening to the Dallas City Hall corruption trial in federal court, which is all about race and contracts. This is the third time since 1996. Jason Trahan, the reporter covering the trial for The Dallas Morning News, pointed out in a story June 30 that the two previous federal corruption trials of Dallas City Council members—Paul Fielding in '96, Al Lipscomb three years later—both turned on the same themes coming up already in this one. All three are about racial set-asides for contractors, influence peddling and vote selling.

That does not mean that's what happened in this case. The reason for the trial, I'm sure we all remember, is to find that out. These themes are elements of the accusation, but we have yet to find out if the accusation is just.

Former city council member Al Lipscomb: One can hear echoes of his corruption case today.
Sam Merten
Former city council member Al Lipscomb: One can hear echoes of his corruption case today.

But we can't listen to more than a minute of the testimony and not think about race in Dallas. The theme of race whirls through every twist and turn like a dust storm. I don't know yet what the essence of the case may turn out to be, but I do recognize the essence of the story: It's two guys telling affordable housing director Bill Fisher that they intend to skim hundreds of thousands of dollars off his deals and do no work at all in exchange for the money.

In some of the wiretaps, former city plan commission member D'Angelo Lee calls the money he intends to take from government-sanctioned affordable housing deals a "tax." I call it the southern Dallas tax. The southern Dallas tax was at the center of the Paul Fielding story, the Al Lipscomb story and now this story.

I watched the first week of it from an annex courtroom on an upper floor of the federal building where U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn allowed us to use laptops and cell phones. The sound quality on the closed-circuit TV system was primitive at times, sort of like listening through a tin can on a string, all of which gave me a strange sense of peeking down from a secret treetop on someone else's family squabble.

In Detroit, where I grew up and where I worked on the assembly lines for five years as a young man, there was no subtlety. Everybody came to town with two hard hands and an empty wallet, whether he came from a cotton field in East Texas or a brick factory in Belfast, and everybody wanted the same five bucks a day from Henry Ford, the same chance to buy the same little brick house in Livonia and send his kid to the same university in Ypsilanti.

I am not saying it worked out beautifully. Huge swaths of Detroit lie fallow today, decimated by riots that Dallas never had and by a Republican mortgage scandal everyone seems to have forgotten. But through Detroit's best times and worst, the basic idea was strong—that there is no white dream or black dream, only the same American dream. That basic idea did produce a vibrant and empowered black middle class in Detroit and its suburbs.

Nobody had to be polite about it. Whenever someone asked what black people wanted, the answer up there was always the same. Everything. Not a slice of the pie. Not a hand-out or a set-aside. The whole enchilada—the same thing the guy from the Irish brick factory wanted when he came half way 'round the world hoping to score a job on the assembly line.

Here, it's different, and all I really know is that I really don't quite understand. I listen to this trial on a tin can every day, and I pick up faint whispers from a very different past. I just don't get what past.

The basic idea underlying the Fielding and Lipscomb trials—also visible in this one as it unfolds—is that black Dallas and white Dallas are separate and distinct entities, like sovereign realms engaged in foreign trade with each other. Each side seeks tribute from the other. Justice is only about the fairness of the deal, not whether there should be such deals.

The most striking recent example for me was the way the Morning News editorial page handled the different story earlier this year of the southern Dallas inland port. A California investor had complained that he was getting sandbagged by local officials even though he was trying to bring a huge, clean, non-disruptive industrial development to job-starved southern Dallas.

The inland port story involved a number of themes strikingly parallel to what I hear through the can in former city council member Don Hill's trial going on right now in federal court. The inland port developer was under pressure to somehow compensate black southern Dallas for doing business within its borders.

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