Years ago an editor at another newspaper who thought I was worrying a story to death told me, "The French have a saying that to understand everything is to forgive everything. Remember, Schutze, we are not French."

No kidding. But I don't think it forgives anybody to try to understand history and context. I am thinking of the tough sentences handed down over the last two weeks by a U.S. District judge in the Dallas City Hall corruption trial.

The acts for which the defendants were sentenced were crimes—not mistakes, not failures to communicate, but crimes—like walking into a beer store and sticking a gun in the clerk's face or cheating widows and orphans out of their homes in a Wall Street scam. But the context in which the City Hall crimes took place is worth considering, especially if it's still a factor.

The money line in this entire sordid saga came from Judge Barbara Lynn. In imposing an 18-year prison term for bribery and extortion on former Dallas City Council Member Don Hill, Lynn told him: "I'm not sure you get it." She told Hill, "I don't think you have internalized the wrong that you have done."

Nor had his lawyers. I read their pre-sentencing motion telling Lynn why Hill didn't deserve prison time. It said, "Mr. Hill has been a hard-working member of society his entire life. Mr. Hill's law-abiding life and low risk for recidivism indicates that he would not be a risk if sentenced below the guideline. It is very difficult to imagine Mr. Hill getting into trouble with the law ever again."

The man had just been convicted in Lynn's court last October 5 of seven counts of bribery and extortion. Who goes to the judge who presided over the trial and tells her with a straight face that the felon convicted in her own court is a law-abiding citizen?

Who says that? Someone who believes it. Obviously Hill did. In a stunning display of not getting it, Hill spoke to the judge before she announced his sentence at the February 26 sentencing hearing. He told her, in effect, that he knew that she knew that he was really innocent. His speech to Lynn was reported by Jason Trahan on The Dallas Morning News crime blog.

Trahan quotes Hill as telling the judge: "When the verdict was read October 5, I could be wrong your Honor, but I just sensed a degree of hurt or pain you even experienced in reading the verdict."

Hill goes on to offer one last time the same theory of defense his attorneys argued stubbornly in their failed trial strategy: Hill couldn't have been breaking the law, because he was so easy to catch.

Hill tells Lynn: "You didn't really have to have wiretaps on me to be able to press the case against me. Everything I was doing, advocating for, I was doing it openly and transparently."

I've gotten myself into trouble already by saying on our blog, Unfair Park, that I didn't think Hill and his confederates understood they were breaking the law. Commenters offered the worthwhile observation that Hill is a lawyer. At some point in law school, the professors do have to point out, I suppose, that extorting bribes is against the law. That is why, in fact, they call them bribes.

But here is where I go a little French on you. I say you have to answer another question. Whose law?

May I tell you a story at this point? I heard this two years ago from a distinguished business leader in the black community, who was talking to me about the then-upcoming City Hall federal corruption trial and about traditional attitudes toward the law in South Dallas.

He said a few years earlier he had taken his adolescent grandson to a popular South Dallas barbershop. The grandson's father, who lived in an affluent suburb, was strict about the young man's attitude concerning the law. He was to be taught respect and obedience to the law, no matter what. All law, all day long.

While the grandfather was getting a shave and haircut, two nattily dressed men, working their way slowly down the line of chairs, arrived at his side. They quizzed him about his suit, shirt and shoe sizes. The grandfather knew them well, knew what they did for a living and knew them to be respected as professionals. In South Dallas.

When he and his grandson stepped out into the parking lot, the two men waved them over to the opened trunk of a car. There, as neatly displayed as if on a table at Neiman Marcus, were suits, shirts, ties and shoes—exactly the kind the grandfather wore—at amazingly low prices.

But here was the point of the story: Normally, if the grandson had not been standing next to him gape-mouthed, the grandfather might have said, "Yeah, I'll take the blue and the gray." Instead, he had to castigate the men sternly as common thieves and warn them never to insult him again by proposing that he traffic in stolen property.

The grandfather, a business success, understood South Dallas rules by which thieves are Robin Hoods and jacking the white man is a good thing. But the grandson's father didn't want his son to understand or even know those rules, probably because they are a poison that destroys young lives.

I liked that story on several levels. First of all, it contains the good news about what has happened to a very large number of African-Americans since I came to Dallas three decades ago. They have gone to where that kid's father took him—the suburbs, places where children can grow up in the assimilated mainstream of the nation.

But on another level, the story was a history of the way Dallas has always viewed racial separation, as a hard border demarking distinct and mutually exclusive realms, each with its own culture and class structure, each with its own law and rules.

In hours and hours of tapes and testimony, what I gleaned from the City Hall corruption trial was this: Hill and his confederates demanded a share of any money spent or made within South Dallas by white developers, but they never demanded or expected any true participation in those projects. When they demanded token participation, it was for something like the phony "consulting" agreement that paid Hill's wife $14,000 a month for nothing.

Again and again in the trial and even at his sentencing, Hill cloaked his crimes in references to injustices of the past. "I'm proud of the things we did at City Hall," he told the judge. "Those will only be a footnote, but I'm proud of the economic development. I've seen people whose lives have changed because of it."

This phenomenon has moral echoes, if not direct legal parallels, in the Inland Port situation with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. There, Price sponsored a group of black business people who went to a major developer and demanded an equity share in his company—effectively a fee for permission to do business in South Dallas.

I understand that many Dallasites, especially the newer arrivals, white and black, are shocked and puzzled by the whole pay-to-play mentality in South Dallas. They wonder where on earth people ever got the idea that they deserve tribute just because someone wants to cross the border into their separate realm.

The answer was in the City Hall corruption trial testimony. Former Mayor Laura Miller testified she had figured out one day at a council meeting in 2004 that the late James Fantroy, a southern Dallas councilman, had extracted from a developer an agreement to hire security guards from Fantroy's security company as payment for Fantroy's vote to approve the developer's project.

Miller was appalled and angry. In that, she was alone. In a secret session, the city attorney instructed the council that problems with the law could be avoided if the contractor simply hired Fantroy's guards to work at the developer's projects outside the city limits.

Carol Reed, who is the political consultant and campaign-runner par excellence for the old white Dallas political establishment, advised the developer who later became a government witness in the corruption trial to keep giving Fantroy his juice.

Ponder that for a bit. Just ponder it. And then tell me where you think South Dallas got the idea it could and should demand tribute.

None of this would happen without segregation. Obviously. There would be no need for tribute and no excuses based on injustices of the past, if there had not been injustices. The ghosts of those injustices occur on both sides of the line and speak to each other across it.

I'm not excusing crimes. Crimes are crimes. But I am offering an important context. And here is another thing I think even a hard-case racist would have to concede me. South Dallas didn't invent segregation. At some point deep in the moral context, a measure of accountability lies with those who did.

You can say it doesn't count. You're wrong. It does.

Dallas as a whole tends to be hermetically sealed from outside influence. People behave the way they do because they always have and because they sincerely believe it is the right way. In that sense, the ghetto line isn't the border between north and south. It's the city limits.

When Judge Barbara Lynn told Don Hill he didn't get it and then brought that 18-year hammer down on his head, she was striking for reality and law beyond Dallas. The real law. She was saying the jury was right. The Justice Department was right. The FBI was right. All those people at Dallas City Hall, white and black, who sincerely believe racial tribute is a legitimate and time-honored practice are wrong. It's extortion.

The old culture dies hard, in part because it offers comforts. It offers twin refuges on either side of the line to which the people who are afraid of each other may repair. It offers the solace of the barber shop on one side and the solace of the real Neiman Marcus on the other.

But the old system is separate and unequal. A lot more people from one side of the line wind up going to the pen over all this than from the other. If there were ever an argument for going out there with our boots on and rubbing that line right out of the dirt, that ought to be it.

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