It’s a favorite refrain of voters outside Memphis: If only Memphis would quit electing incompetent elected officials, we would be willing to love the city that we depend on for jobs and entertainment.
Of course, it’s all rhetoric. There’s nothing that’s ever going to be good enough that these anti-Memphis voters won’t find some reason to trash the city.
But that’s not the point of this post.
Instead, it’s about the threadbare narrative that goes unchecked by the news media that the leadership outside Memphis is highly qualified and the leadership inside Memphis is inept and ill-equipped for their jobs. If anybody should be making those comments about ineptitude, it should be Memphians talking about suburban elected officials.
When you look at these suburban politicians as a group, it leads you to wonder if there was some cosmic event that allowed Mark Norris to be elected state senator. While that’s faint praise and we don’t agree with him much, at least he can string together a syllogism when needed. He’s head master of a motley group that dependably plays to the lowest common denominator, pandering to the fears of their constituents about “those people” in Memphis and pursuing such enlightened political positions as guns in parks and restaurants, anti-science laws, voter ID, and that’s only a start at the inane policies being pushed.
We heard it especially during the government consolidation debate as county elected officials belittled Memphis leaders. It was a remarkable assertion, especially considering that the Millington commissioner making the charge was at the time mangling the facts as easily as he mangled the rules of grammar.
Back then, he complained that the charter commission didn’t give the public enough time to consider the new charter (state law sets the timeline), he complained that single source funding will increase taxes (single source funding is state law), he said that there is no real annexation in our future (actually Memphis has 150 more square miles it can annex), and criticisms that Memphis should get its house in order (although it’s his county government that’s driving up taxes and costs of government here, not Memphis).
Lately, we’ve been reminded again that Memphians should refuse once and for all to listen to the underlying narrative of the suburbs – white Republicans good and African-American Democrats bad.
The suburban “leaders” regularly take their message to the basest bias of their voters: Memphis is bad, Memphians are the problem, we have to protect ourselves from Memphis, we need our guns to protect ourselves from those people.
It’s a sad commentary on suburban voters, but it’s a reminder that our low educational attainment level is not merely reflected in the people living in poverty inside Memphis, but the people living in their own selfish superiority outside Memphis.
There’s always been a vein of anti-intellectualism in Southern politics (it seems to have spread to a national level these days) and the victors at the polls for suburban elected offices remind us of the power of fear over facts every day.
Why Are These White People So Mad?
Outside Memphis, all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. Out in God’s country, people are smarter, richer, and happier.
So, what in the heck happens to all these superior people when they enter the voting booth? What are they so angry about? Where does all this hostility to Memphis come from? You’re not in Memphis so why do you care?
It’s hard for us to say. Although it’s tempting to chalk up all of this to the neverending yin and yang of race in our community, perhaps they’re just mad, period. And they fail to see the contradictions in so much of what they say as when, in the same debate, Memphis (translate: black Memphis) was blamed this amorphous Memphis for the decline of Frayser, Whitehaven and Hickory Hill.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s also blame the victim. Those areas weren’t doomed when they were annexed by Memphis. It’s worth remembering that Frayser was annexed 50 years ago and Whitehaven 40 years ago, and despite what some people are saying, they receive all services of City of Memphis.
Blaming the Victim
More to the point, a fundamental part of the problem isn’t about Memphis at all. It is the way that Shelby County Government turned the roles of government inside out.
County government wasn’t supposed to provide urban services, but once the office of county mayor was created, mayors wanted to lock in the non-Memphis vote and they did it by providing services that are normally and logically provided by cities.
As a result, county government eroded the dividing line between county and city services and weakened the legal logic that said urban services come with city taxes. It’s also what drove up the costs of county government and created the mentality that made sprawl acceptable. It also fed the “we versus they” attitude that is so pervasive here, but especially in the ‘burbs, and it wasn’t about a grand philosophy of government at all, it was about political advantage.
It’s also laughable to hear a county commissioner from Millington – stagnant in jobs growth, population growth flat, poverty rising, and neighborhoods deteriorating – criticize Memphis neighborhoods for their lack of progress and success. But here’s the main thing: It wasn’t city government that caused Frayser, Whitehaven and Hickory Hill to have problems. It was white flight, the abandonment of the city for reasons personal and racial. That’s why it’s so galling to hear some suburbanites blaming Memphis officials. It was whites who set the deterioration in motion, and now, they blame the people who stayed behind and are trying to fix it.
Their resolve to paint Memphis with a broad brush is testament to a characteristic that defines politics way too much these days. It’s all about them. It’s all about winning and losing, no matter what degree of pandering it takes.
So in addition to guns in parks and restaurants, suburban politicians offer up legislation that would prevent Memphis from passing living wage ordinances, that would close public records of people with permits to carry guns, that would dumb down ethics rules and weaken public meetings laws, that would use schools as vehicles for their version of Christianity, that would have rejected stimulus funding, that would deny full rights to all people, well, you get the picture.
It’s a cynical strategy in which there is no saturation point for partisanship and the self-motivation of their own political success, damn the best interests of the community or any responsibility to contribute to meaningful public discussion or to healing the divisions that put a hole in the boat that we’re all passengers in.