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.
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.
I was never as interested in the criminal implications of the inland port situation—there may be none, time will tell—as in the social, political and economic messages. I thought bringing well-paid jobs with benefits to southern Dallas had to be a positive good, something to be welcomed with open arms and a certain sense of relief, if not actual gratitude.
Southern Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, whom I have known for 30 years and for whom I have had great respect, told me I was wrong. He told me manual labor jobs are a form of exploitation associated with slavery. In a letter to the California investor, Price said derisively, "During slavery everybody had a job."
Price made the same demand of the California developer that I hear echoed in this trial—that the investor give up an equity share in his business in exchange for the privilege of doing business in southern Dallas. It's the sort of demand nations sometimes make of foreign investors, based on a powerful sense of territorial prerogative. If you want to enter our territory and do business on our soil, you must pay a tariff.
So I'm sitting up in the tin-can room in my coarse, untutored Yankee carpetbagger ignorance wondering what territory? What territory? Separate black and white territories went away with segregation. Right?
Oh, wait. Did segregation not quite go away?
Maybe not, according to a distinctly creepy April 16 Morning News editorial about the inland port. In it, the Morning News wagged its finger at The Allen Group (TAG), the California inland port investor now headquartered in Dallas, as if TAG were an oafish sort of Moustache Pete immigrant who hadn't quite learned the refined ways of the city by the Trinity River. Maybe I sympathize so strongly with TAG because I feel oafish sometimes too.
The city's only daily newspaper wanted this interloper from the primitive reaches of California to better understand the subtleties of trade across the racial borderline in Dallas. The headline was, "Southern Dallas 101," with an underline that said, "Inland port saga a valuable lesson about restraint."
The editorial explained that, "Suspicions run high among many in southern Dallas that outside investors, particularly from white-owned companies, only want to exploit workers and reap big profits without giving something back to the community."
Of course, I read these words in my thick-headed way and wondered how you can "exploit workers" if you are creating new jobs for people who have not had jobs or work since Reconstruction. How do you exploit unemployed people by giving them good jobs?
And if anybody from California or anywhere else can "reap big profits" in southern Dallas, he will accomplish a miracle that has eluded Dallas investors since the Civil War.
The Morning News explained that southern Dallas doesn't see it that way. There, according to the News, "Many are eager to prove that they, too, can launch big projects and are loath to let outsiders do what they can do themselves."
Well, if somebody in southern Dallas thinks that southern Dallas can launch its own massive new continental shipping center—or auto plant or steel mill or space port—then somebody in southern Dallas is tragically deluded. That magnitude of investment can only come from outside the community. History teaches it will not come from white Dallas. Therefore it must come from farther away, and if and when it ever does show up, people ought to roll out the red carpet.
Instead, TAG was bullied by southern Dallas politicians who wanted it to give an equity share in its company to certain well-connected southern Dallas contract-seekers. And when TAG complained to Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson that it was the victim of a shakedown, the News accused it of committing an outrageous gaffe:
"Going forward, white-dominated companies must keep foremost in mind the unique history of southern Dallas," the News said. "It is not simply a great business opportunity to be exploited for maximum profit."
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What is southern Dallas? Chechnya? Call me a carpetbagger lout, but I think this is simple. Pretend I'm the outside investor. Are you telling me that in order to invest in southern Dallas and create high-dollar jobs with health benefits, I have to pay some kind of damn tax where I actually give a slice of my company to a bunch of strangers? Guess what, Sherlock. I ain't comin'. I'm going to take my money and invest it in some place like West Point, Georgia, where they're on bended knee begging me to show up and in fact offering to give me all the land I need free of charge as an incentive.
If anything, southern Dallas should be deeply suspicious of the ease with which the Morning News risks driving outside investment away entirely from southern Dallas. It's almost as if the Morning News can live with poverty forever in southern Dallas better than it could live with prosperity that owed nothing to white Dallas.
Last Monday the Morning News ran a front-page story by its political columnist, Gromer Jeffers, who is black, saying that many black leaders in Dallas are embarrassed by the racial themes they have been hearing in this trial. Great. They should be.
But what about the white folks? These are their themes too. It always took two to tango.