In many ways, cities are like corporations attempting to win customers and capital (residents and businesses) away from others. And, like corporations, cities attempt to improve their position by learning from the success of their competitors and by building on their own unique assets. These two types of strategies don’t always go hand in hand – and in some cases, the more cities try to rely on copying the strategies of others, the farther they get from embracing their own strengths.

The Memphis metropolitan statistical area is poised to become the first major metro area in which minorities make up the majority of the population. Plenty of American cities have a majority black population, but there are none where the broader metropolitan area has a “minority majority” population by standard Census Bureau race categories. (There are a few metro areas with a majority Hispanic population, but the census does not include Hispanic among its categories for race.) According to recent estimates, our metro area population is about 50 percent white and slightly over 45 percent black; and it’s likely that the Memphis metro area will be majority black within a few years.

This clearly puts us in a unique position, but we have yet to embrace this status as an asset – in fact, we hardly seem aware of it in our civic discourse. (We’re not unaware of race, but appear to be unaware of, or uninterested in, the fact that our metro-wide minority population makes us unique among American cities.) Competitive advantage is born out of the ability to recognize unique assets. If we continue to ignore or try to hide what makes us unique, and choose instead to look elsewhere for copy and paste urban strategies, we’ll surely fall short of our potential.

Drawing Lessons

A recent post by Aaron Renn at New Geography speaks to the tendency of city leaders and planners to rely on a common set of role models. Renn’s White City argues that the places that are most often held up as “progressive” exemplars are demographically homogenous (white), and he questions whether such places truly make sense as role models for cities with more diverse populations. Renn doesn’t use the term “progressive” to mean politically left, but rather as a proxy term to capture the essence of cities that have largely avoided common urban ills or are generally considered desirable places to the extent that others try to emulate their policies. His list of role model “white cities” includes Portland, Seattle, Austin, Denver, and Minneapolis. The discussion has drawn tremendous interest from media outlets as varied as the Root and the Economist (both of which are worth a read).

This is something I’ve thought a lot about, having spent four years studying planning in Portland, sandwiched between studying, practicing, and teaching planning in the less-white cities of Richmond, VA and Memphis. Carl Abbott, a Portland historian and professor of Urban Studies and Planning refers to Portland’s “Ramona Quimby neighborhoods” and notes that whiteness and regionalism have been convenient allies in the Northwest. “Because city-suburb politics are not racialized (in Portland), there is no insurmountable barrier to regional cooperation on transit, and none of the racially motivated decisions that controlled siting of rail transit systems in cities such as Atlanta and Miami.”

In the end, I don’t think Renn’s realization means that we can’t learn from Portland and other cities on the “white list.” After all, good is good. I happen to think the kind of regionalism that promotes equity is a good thing. It might be more difficult to achieve that kind of regionalism in a place like Memphis, but it seems that it is also immensely more necessary. And shouldn’t cities earn the right be called progressive by having some degree of conflict to progress against?

(As an aside, while I appreciate Renn’s analysis and think it’s a valid issue for discussion, I don’t agree entirely with his use statistics. For example, it isn’t fair to consider Austin a white city simply because Travis County is only 9 percent black. The city of Austin is 35 percent Hispanic or Latino. Denver is also 34 percent Hispanic or Latino.)

The important thing to recognize here is that context matters –which gets us back to the main point.

Strength through Distinctiveness

We don’t have to look at our context – our demographics – solely as a challenge to adopting policies that have seemed to work better in more homogenous places. We can and should embrace our unique minority majority metro status as an important asset.

Our unique demographic attributes bring unique opportunities – opportunities to be groundbreaking as we strive to make civic improvements. For example, as we work toward improving livability and sustainability in our region we should embrace the opportunity to cast a green agenda against a multi-colored canvas. Accomplishing this would establish Memphis as a trend-setter; minorities and poor inner city residents are often overlooked in the environmental movement, yet are disproportionately affected by environmental injustice and the negative consequences of sprawl.

As we seek to attract and retain the educated 25-34 year olds who are essential to a vibrant economy, we should strive to make Memphis a region of choice for young black professionals and creative individuals. It seems clear that part of Atlanta’s success in this regard has to do with the high number of colleges and universities, including three strong historically black institutions – Spellman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta. We should not lose sight of the importance of providing a foundation to get our young black men and women to college, and the role that our own institutions of higher education, including our historically black college, can play – both in educating and serving the black community. And we should focus on and applaud our black artistic and cultural heritage, as organization like the Memphis Black Arts Alliance do.

But if we, lacking self-awareness, continue to overlook our unique position as a potential asset, so too will others. Poke around at some internet discussions about the best cities for young, educated blacks and you’ll likely find we’re not in the conversation. Every three years, Black Enterprise Magazine ranks the “Top 10 Cities for African Americans.” (Despite the title, the rankings are based on measurements at the metro level, not the city level.) The latest ranking came out in 2007. Memphis – the metro area with the highest percentage of black residents in the nation – was not on the list. We made the cut in 2004, but in 2007 were “knocked out of contention because of residents’ great dissatisfaction with several key living standards.”

BE’s ranking are partly based on survey responses and those data were not made available for Memphis, but in the statistical categories we do not compare favorably to the top metros in terms of black unemployment, measures of black household income (median and percent of black households earning over $100K), black educational attainment, and satisfaction with public schools (although we are better than the national average in those income categories). In other words, there are some basics that we need to address (that would surely improve quality of life for all in the Memphis region) in order to have shot at attaining higher goals like those described above.

Music of Higher Aspirations

Perhaps if we want to learn from other cities, we should look to some of BE’s top ten, along with places like Portland. That doesn’t just mean looking to Atlanta, which is a much larger metro than Memphis and has its own troubles with regionalism (including a movement to split Fulton County), but looking for lessons from other BE top tens like Jacksonville, Indianapolis, or (grit your teeth) Nashville – all of which have embraced regionalism through consolidated governments.

But in looking to others for lessons, we must remain aware that we are unique even among those comparison cities. None of the metro areas in BE’s top ten are more than 31 percent black – and none of them have our unique heritage. Only Memphis can claim the legacy of Ida B. Wells, Robert Church, Cornelia Crenshaw, Julia B. Hooks and W.C. Handy. Only Memphis is the birthplace of American Soul music. And Memphis stands alone as a minority majority metro area.

We can only be a great city if what makes us unique is also a strength. Reaching higher aspirations for Memphis must start with a willingness to embrace our uniquely large minority population – particularly our black core – as a unique asset to celebrate and build on.

It’s time for our unique racial makeup to become not just a statistic to brush over or bury, but a point of pride – a valuable part of our identity. To borrow from James Brown, we each have to be willing to say of our city: We’re black and I’m proud. Say it loud!