For as long as we can remember, our community has been having a conversation about the need to have the conversation about race.
And yet, we always seem to find reasons to put it off.
But finally, it seems like we’ve run out of excuses – and time – and if all the positive talk these days about Memphis’ future is to come true, it’s time to have the completely candid and honest discussion about race that is needed if we are to move ahead with the united sense of purpose and shared commitment that are ingredients for success.
There is so much that is moving in the right direction in our community these days, but a large portion of our people remain mere bystanders. As long as our community is unable to uncouple race and poverty, there will be wide inequality and a tale of two cities that prevent our economy from running on all cylinders and our ambitions from being fully achieved.
So, like so many things in life and business, it begins with a conversation.
Black Lives Matter
It’s propelled by Darrius Stewart’s killing and the decision of the Shelby County Grand Jury to ignore the recommendation from the attorney general’s office for the white officer who shot the black teenager to be indicted for voluntary manslaughter and using a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony.
The depth of outrage by African Americans about the decision is largely underestimated by white Memphians and Shelby Countians, and it’s the rare Caucasian who has had a serious, no holding back conversation with an African American about it. It’s just easier to pretend that race doesn’t matter to avoid confronting the daily realities in the lives of black friends and neighbors.
That so many people who have the good fortune to be born into middle class families in middle class neighborhoods credit their success solely to their own ingenuity rather than to the head start in life that they received at birth complicates open conversations and often reduces African Americans to caricatures.
It’s seen too often in whites’ comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, which is often interpreted by African Americans as a verbal dodge to avoid acknowledging unpleasant truths about the community and the country in which we live.
Instead, too many whites cling to glib platitudes about “all lives matter” and elected officials in our majority African American county parrot similar banalities rather than display the brand of leadership that begins the kind of communitywide conversation about the unique barriers, many of them institutional and structural, faced by African Americans and the need to attack these obstacles with determined, broad-based plans of attack.
It’s Up To Us Now
Today, there is a discernable uneasiness among black citizens of Memphis and Shelby County.
More than two dozen African Americans have been killed by police since 2009 and no charges have ever been placed. There is lip service about the need to reduce poverty but there’s not been the comprehensive, coordinated program to do anything substantive about it. There is exciting energy building in Memphis that has the potential to turn into real momentum for progress, but they come largely from big projects while urban neighborhoods go wanting.
Meanwhile, so much hope has been placed on millennials, but polling shows that they have the same racial bias as the generations ahead of them. And the willingness by some to use racist pejoratives like Memfrica is demoralizing and dumbfounding.
Add to that the fact that other research conducted by a research team headed by University of Chicago psychologist Jean Decety concluded that children raised in religious homes are less altruistic and more judgmental than children in less religious homes, and it says to us that the widely held opinion that enlightenment will come with new generations may be misplaced,.
In the end, we can’t bequeath it to future generations to do what we should already have done – to become a caring and equitable community – and we have to do that ourselves, and we can’t put it off any longer.
Focus on Neighborhoods
It is often said that Memphis talks too much about race, but the fact that this is true is often misunderstood. In a community with deep poverty and deprivation, it is the only way that the voiceless can try to be heard. It is not lost on them, however, that their comments, regardless of the volume, rarely result in real change.
It’s why so many African Americans in Memphis and Shelby County have become a people of low expectations. They hear about all the good things going on in Memphis, they hear about all the wonderful things being done by young people, they hear about all the major investments in big projects, and they hear about the way that some neighborhoods are considered trendy and trending and attract attention and money as a result.
But in their own neighborhoods, where the need is dire, they see face to face the consequences of poverty that has been rising for 15 years, and they wonder when it is their time. After all, for decades, their neighborhoods’ declines have failed to produce plans by city and county governments to turn them around.
While downtown and the riverfront have generated at least 100 plans over the past 20 years, there has been little action to produce targeted plans of action for city neighborhoods. Over that same period of time, there are numerous similarly sized cities, including Nashville, that have produced individualized plans for each of their neighborhoods.
Black lives do matter, and black neighborhoods matter too. We mention neighborhoods because the single greatest determinant for a person’s future is the neighborhood where they are born.
In large measure, geography is destiny, and for too many Memphians, it is a destiny of limited opportunity and dashed hopes. That’s because the research shows that for children born into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty – between 1970 and 2010, the number of high poverty census tracts in Memphis climbed from 42 to 78 – the odds are stacked against them.
The majority of people born into the bottom stay there. The coincidence of their places of birth limits their options and throws up formidable barriers, which means that even when they show heroic determination, they are climbing a steep hill where the top is persistently out of reach.
That’s why one of the most difficult experiences in Memphis today is facing young men and women aching for something better and knowing that the structural problems facing this community place it out of reach for most of them. All the motivational speeches, inspirational speakers, and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric are mere distractions, essentially overlaying middle class attitudes on lives in poverty and increasing the disconnect between who we say we are and who we want to be while spending too little time making sure that everyone can be part of the journey.
Touching the Future
The Memphis system was designed long ago to perpetuate low incomes and cheap labor, and as a result, it created multi-generational poverty and deep inequality. For example, the Memphis metro economy is the 42nd largest in the U.S. at $70 billion and the per capita slice of that GDP is about $50,000, and yet, 20% of Memphians subsist today on less than $13,000 a year.
When concentrated poverty is amplified by challenges like economic segregation, sprawl, and a languishing economy, there is no city in America with greater motivation than Memphis to create a culture of opportunity for every citizen.
Memphis is four years away from celebrating the bicentennial of its founding. The unanswered question is what kind of community Memphis will be as it enters its third century – one where we are still talking about the problems of race or one where we have begun to take dramatic action to change the city’s trajectory…and its narrative…and its future.
There is the point at which race and poverty can no longer be explained away by any of us as a coincidence, and we have reached it. While we have all the data we need to frame up today’s problems and challenges for tomorrow, it’s the human face of it all that should shame us into action.
Because of it, Memphis can have no conversations more important than the ones about the link between race and poverty, family distress, early childhood interventions, declining neighborhoods, urban education, minority-owned businesses, seedbeds of crime, low graduation rates, and more.
But the truth is they are all the same discussion. We owe it to ourselves to get it under way now.
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