It’s a favorite refrain these days of voters outside Memphis: If only Memphis would quit electing incompetent elected officials, the members of the white flight brigade would be willing to vote for consolidation.

Of course, it’s all rhetoric.  There’s nothing that’s ever going to be good enough that these “county” voters won’t find some reason to vote against consolidation.  But that’s not the point of this post.

Instead, it’s this 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 believe that there must have been some cosmic event that allowed Mark Norris to be elected state senator.  While we don’t agree with him often, at least his positions are reasoned and call into use the brain cells reserved for logic.  He’s surrounded by a motley group that play 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.


We’re thinking of all this as we watched the WREG-TV consolidation debate Monday night and saw Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland and his sidekick, Jon Crisp, belittle Memphis leaders.  It was a remarkable assertion, especially considering that the Millington commissioner mangled the facts as easily as he mangled the rules of grammar.

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).

All this just reminded us once again that Memphians should refuse once and for all to listen to the underlying narrative of the suburbs – that white Republicans are good and African-American Democrats are bad.  Suburban criticisms ignore the white Democrats in this sweeping criticism of all things political in Memphis, giving credence to the suspicions that race plays a part in this scapegoating.

In the end, everything is broken down into phrases that would have made Tarzan proud: county good, city bad.

Mental Ammunition

What’s missing is any thoughtful discourse about the issues that really matter or any objective discussion of the facts.  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 come from if it’s not essentially race-based?

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 Mr. Crisp did last night when he blamed this amorphous Memphis for the decline of Frayser, Whitehaven and Hickory Hill.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It’s also a blame the victim tactic.

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 commission 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 to try and fix it up.

Exhausted Rhetoric

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, 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 our divisions.

That why we are so tired of these suburban voters and officials always having a mote in their own eyes when it comes to Memphis elected officials.  To make their point, they can always quickly summon of the names of a handful of Memphis officials while ignoring the vast majority who care about public service and take it seriously and conscientiously.

It’s the worst kind of stereotyping and it gets way too much use outside Memphis.