It is an aphorism – though none the less true – that the most segregated hour in Memphis is at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.
Surely it’s equally true that the most racially-corrosive time in Memphis is any time City Council meets.
Its members proved it again last night.
The Time Machine
It’s as if our city’s leaders are trapped in a time warp where only an H.G. Wells plot line could get them into the present, a present where their racial rhetoric is more and more revealed for its fossilized underpinnings, where their obsession with all things racial is seen for its antediluvian view of our city and where their role models of irrelevancy on race relations is exposed for the burlesque that it is.
It’s as if most Council members have no concept of the responsibilities that come with the gift of public leadership. At a time when we should be celebrating the power of ideas, most members cling to the power of prejudice.
Lost in this mélange of Tuesday buffoonery is the reality that their words and actions are in fact poisoning the civic culture of the city.
If racial polarization is a malignancy in Memphis, it seems clear that the place to lance the boil is Memphis City Council.
The World In Black And White
It is there that anything – absolutely anything – can get cast in shades of black and white. It wasn’t too long ago that one of the Council members, in the midst of his regular rants, referred to lessons learned from the slave masters. If these lessons included the use of racial invective, insulting epithets and demeaning posturing, there’s no question that he was a star pupil.
In this respect, yesterday’s Council meeting was classic.
Whether it was the Riverfront Development Corporation’s Beale Street Landing project, the request by Lemoyne-Owen College for a $3 million bailout or consideration of new ethics rules, Council members were capable of dragging it down to the lowest common denominator in public debate.
We admit that we’ve often explained away the rhetoric of African-American Council members like this: after years of being frozen out of the political system in any meaningful way, they had no real choice but to become adept at using the kind of language that gives them the only power they could muster – the power to shut down public debate by injecting charges of racism. As more than one sociologist has pointed out, it was in this victimization that African-Americans enjoyed one of the few times when they could shift the balance of power and control the conversation.
But these days, we have less patience. Rather than take the experiences of discrimination and use them to create an open, diverse system of thought and participation, some Council members seem almost intent on reinventing the malignant environment of the past.
At times, it’s as if the fact that we live in a city with an African-American city mayor, an African-American county mayor, an African-American City Council majority and an African-American majority in our state legislative delegation means nothing.
Code Of Conduct
If Memphis City Council really wants to demonstrate its maturity, it would tone down the racial rants and adopt a general code of conduct. Most of all, Council members would stop their reflexive charges of racism against anyone with whom they disagree or who represents a project they oppose.
This trend reached its zenith a few weeks ago when yet another person appearing before the Council was accused of being a bigot. Apparently, the fact that he was an active and impassioned champion of the civil rights movement was lost to the fogs of history.
It was a charge that struck the person at his moral core, because he had tried to make racial equality a central theme of his life. And yet, it was a charge tossed about cavalierly by a Council member who disagreed with his position. To the Council member, it was just an instrument of political theater, but to the citizen, it was the same as questioning his personal integrity and character.
Clearly, this kind of rhetoric is infectious. While many of the comments at last night’s Council meeting would leave all but the simple-minded shaking their heads, most alarming were the rallying cries from old lions like Rev. James Netters. In his comments, he recounted how he was denied admission to Memphis State University in 1948.
No one of good will would argue that this wasn’t a shameful era in the history of this city, nor would they argue that it is fortunate for all of us that Lemoyne-Owen College was there to provide a college education for a generation of African-American professionals.
But he didn’t stop there. He then suggested that a duplicitous double standard was being applied to the college, noting that city funding had been given to private institutions with no requirement of matching funds. The implication to listeners was that there are different rules for other institutions, apparently white ones, but as far as we can tell, the only private institution that has received city money previously was in fact Lemoyne-Owen College (although we’re sure Rhodes College and Christian Brothers University will be glad to send in their requests for $3 million).
Then, there was Yolanda Spinks, a communications student at Lemoyne-Owen, who opined a common theme: “It saddens me that everything always comes down to race.” The irony was seemingly lost on her that she said it in a meeting where Lemoyne-Owen supporters were making sure that the discussion was all about race in the first place.
Also lost was the chance to have a serious discussion about any financial plans to prevent a future request for emergency funding from city taxpayers, about separation of church and state issues that arise from public money being funneled to a private religious college, about other options for its governance such as affiliation with the Tennessee Board of Regents or about any aspirations for the college not just to survive but to elevate itself into the top tier of historically black colleges and universities.
Instead of being the place where this kind of substantive discussion takes place, City Council ultimately fails in its first job – to create the common ground where citizens are encouraged to debate, discuss and engage in the substantive issues facing Memphis.
To the contrary, Council Chambers – with its trappings of past glories and present neglect – has become an environment hostile to most managers of city government, much less average citizens.
Standing outside the Council chambers during much of the meeting, an African-American woman in her early 20’s, working as an intern in City Hall, said she couldn’t bear to listen.
“It’s the kind of arguing we (people her age) don’t care about,” she said. “The folks in there are always looking for the chance to march and to demonstrate or to talk about the old days and how bad they were treated. But they’re not representing us. They don’t even ask us. We can live anywhere we want, we can have any friends we want, we can live in any city we want and we just want the chance to succeed. We’re not interesting in fighting these old battles. They’re just a waste of time.”
And that’s the saddest thing of all. Council members most prone to lapse into this kind of destructive rhetoric have no concept that to many young African-Americans, all they are proving is how out of touch they really are.
A Chill In The Air
More to the point, all this does nothing so effectively as having a chilling effect on the development of new public leadership at the time when it is needed most.
Next time you think there’s a lack of smart, savvy, young, potential leaders in Memphis, visit FedEx World Headquarters’ cafeteria at lunch time.
It’s a visit that is striking in its effect, because it’s clear that Memphis has thousands of African-American professionals calling the shots in one of the world’s most admired corporations, taking the slings and arrows that come every day in their highly pressurized industry. And yet, they refuse to get involved in the mean streets of public life in Memphis, considering it laughable at best and an indictment of the city at worst.
About 12 hours after the City Council session, we were in a meeting with some people who work every day to solve some of Memphis’ worst problems. They aren’t elected. They avoid City Council meetings like the plague. They work at the grassroots. They work to engage community organizations in the hard work of community-building.
They unanimously agree that the racial chasm amplified in the news media exists primarily in the halls of government, where ritualized racial posturing defines the culture there. They tell of a different Memphis, one where community and neighborhood organizations all over the city are working on the grittiest issues and doing it with little regard to the fact that there are two races at the table.
Instead, they recognize the differences that come from their experiences, and they use them to unify them and strengthen their plans of action. When they talk about race, they talk calmly as friends exploring the boundaries of understanding and tolerance.
The Real Memphis
It was a well-timed reality check.
We can read about Council meetings, we can listen to the verbal bombasts that take place there and we can shake our heads over the wasted energy and time when so much in Memphis needs our leaders’ attention.
But, we should never make the mistake that Memphis City Council reflects what’s really going on in Memphis.
That’s because the real progress is being made at the grassroots, and that’s also where the Council could learn an awful lot about deliberation, decision-making and consensus-building.
There’s no time like the present.