The 21st century dawned with such hope, and chief among the reasons for optimism was the emergence of a group of young African Americans determined to improve the community and its political opportunities for their generation.

That’s why it’s so disheartening in Memphis today to see what 15 years of hard work has done to so many of these gifted men and women.

Their optimism has been ground down for some by inertia that prevents substantive progress in increasing opportunity while decreasing inequality.  The high expectations of their youth have been replaced by a world weariness­­ that stems from working in the trenches to create more inclusive economic development and to open up decision-making to more diversity.

Their aspirations have been tempered by the lack of progress on core issues where there is more lip service than action, and their confidence hasn’t necessarily grown by seeing behind the curtain.  Urged to get involved by white leaders, they fine some of same people holding back when their support is most needed to make change happen.

But, most discouraging of all is the fact that some of them have given up, moving to other cities (while even more are thinking of joining them).  In other words, for them, Memphis is at a make or break moment, a time to put up or shut up, a time to prove that it deserves their presence and appreciated their talents.

Waiting for the Verdict

Here’s the thing: there’s now a new generation of African Americans who are looking to the generation just ahead of them for proof that they should stay, that they can make a difference in Memphis, that progress is being made, and that the city and county is a place where they want to invest their lives.

When you ask them, you often hear a similar answer: the jury is still out.

The opinions of the generation ahead matter to these young professionals, who have seen them as role models and given their opinions special weight.

There are no rose-colored glasses.  There is only the clear-eyed view of a city that talks about young professionals but doesn’t do nearly enough to give them ways for their opinions to have real traction or to drive the agenda or to change things.

The 40-somethings have soldiered on although many times, it seems that the powers-that-be absorb their issues into their talking points but don’t do much to address them, much less engage in the honest, no-hold-barred conversations about race and class that could inspire new understanding and breakthroughs.

For example, the conversations would reveal the feelings that neighborhoods that are celebrated for turning themselves around are not the ones where they were reared, which continue to struggle with blight, decline, and population loss.  It feels like that when talent is discussed and when programs are conceived to attract talent, people don’t squarely address the fact that Memphis’ competitive advantage is to be a hub of African American talent.  In addition, programs dedicated to attracting the “creative class” don’t seem to be aimed at people like them and all the encouraging, upbeat anecdotes about new buildings and new investments can’t mask the realities of earning disparities, low wages attached to low skill jobs, and the poverty that remains a birthright for too many Memphis children.

The Flashpoint

About 15 years ago, the then twenty-somethings thought the answer was to get into the rooms where the decisions were made, but it regularly feels that there must be other rooms because too little change is taking place in the rooms where they are.

All in all, this is why the lack of progress on minority business development has been a flashpoint of frustration for African Americans.

After 15 years of talking about how important minority business is to our region, their percentage of total business revenues has done the impossible – they actually went down.  In 2007, it was a meager 1.08%, and now, it’s a pathetic 0.83%.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Government reported that 88% of funds spent for Shelby County Government contracts went to companies owned by white men – a staggering $168.2 million out of $190.5 million.

What had been a slow burn has now flared into the open, and because of it, how Memphis and Shelby County deal with this issue will be the proof of whether this community is serious about inclusive economic growth or prove that African American talent should write their futures somewhere else.

Perilous Decisions

It’s a harsh moment of truth, and for many people in positions of power, it sounds like an overstatement and unrelated to any of their experiences.  And yet, just as Memphis has always been a tale of two cities, it remains so even today, and we ignore the realities of that fact at our own peril.

To many of us, the most troubling issues facing our community are abstract and merely statistical, but for so much of our city, they are facts of life that they come face-to-face with every day.  Chief among those facts of life is that geography is too often destiny and that race and poverty are inextricably linked.

After all, children growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty have a 3% chance of moving into the top 20% of American earners, and between 1970 and 2010, the number of high poverty census tracts in Memphis climbed from 42 to 78.

Today, almost 50% of all African American children in Memphis live in poverty, and it’s hard to imagine that we would not have already done something dramatic and resolute if this were happening to Caucasian children.

The escape hatch from poverty should be a job, but between 1990-2012, low-wage jobs grew 40%.  We have 6.02 times more cargo and freight agents than a typical metro, 3.24 times more laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, 2.45 times more shipping, receiving, and traffic clerks, and 2.49 times more industrial truck and tractor operators.

When compared to seven peer cities – Birmingham, Little Rock, Louisville, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and St. Louis – our GDP ranked #2 in 2001, #3 in 2005, #6 in 2010, and now it is #8 – last.  In 2001, the per capita Memphis metro GDP was $49,324; in 2005, it was $51,894, and in 2013, it was $47,014, which indicates the inequality in our region since 20% of Memphians live on less than $13,000 a year.

It Begins With The First Step

Among the 50 largest regions, the Memphis region is #1 in individuals living in poverty as a percent of total population; #6 in income inequality; #44 in per capital income; #13 in the income gap; #42 in the change in gross domestic product per capita.

Here’s the clincher: the Memphis region is dead last – #50 – in social mobility.

All of this is why one of the most difficult experiences in Memphis today is facing young men and women aching for something better and knowing that structural problems place it out of reach for most of them, increasing the disconnect between who we are and who we want to be while spending too little time making sure that everyone can be part of the journey.

That journey begins by proving that we are serious about minority business.  It means that economic development agencies have to double down and become uncompromising advocates for it with current and prospective businesses and the incentives they receive.  It means that county commissioners don’t hide behind flimsy justifications for closed meetings that keep the public from hearing the results of a public report paid with public money.

It means that corporations quit treating business with minority businesses as if they’ve done a good deed instead of good business.  It means that the private sector quits looking to the public sector like it’s supposed to bear primary responsibility for minority business – although both city and county government and their agencies’ total budgets account for less than 4% of the total GDP.

It Begins With Honesty

Most of all, minority business and African-American talent have to be treated as opposite sides of the same coin.  They are interlocking drivers of economic progress.  More African-American businesses can accomplish so many of our economic objectives for Memphis, including accelerated jobs growth, spurring entrepreneurs, creating new tax revenues, rebuilding urban neighborhoods, expanding local tax bases, creating more customers and putting more money in cash registers, and inspiring young people that they have options for the future.

So, here’s our modest recommendation.  Solutions should be asked from the people who understand the challenges and opportunities best: African American business and civic leaders.

Before we appoint lots of government committees or name new ad hoc committees for economic development agencies, someone should simply ask African American business and civic leaders to convene honest, frank conversations about their ideas to create more minority businesses that make more money to hire more people.  Then, release the recommendations to the community, driving a stake in the ground demanding action and accountability.  This same group should review all reports in recent years to evaluate which recommendations and strategies can be acted on quickly, and also, they should consult with agencies that are getting it right, like Memphis Light Gas & Water Division.

Because 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.  As a result, there is no city more appropriate for this kind of conversation about African American business development than Memphis.

It Can’t Hurt

If one thing is clear from our economic indicators, what we’re doing isn’t working.  There’s more and more research that indicates that U.S. cities and their business incentives have for decades been focused on types of economic growth strategies that can increase inequality and leave poor people behind.   We remain in the lower rungs of the 50 largest metros on key measurement.  We’ve run out of reasons that we can’t do better in creating minority businesses and in increasing their business receipts.

We’ve said for years that it’s hard to think of an economic development strategy that has more potential for transforming our economy than minority business development.  It’s time to translate all the talk into a detailed plan with both short-term and long-term objectives, and when we say short-term, we mean actions that can be taken within weeks.

The stakes could not be higher.  The development of an actionable, ambitious, aggressive minority business plan is not just crucial for our economic health and fairness.   It also may be the last and best chance that Memphis and Shelby County have to prove to two generations of African Americans that this community deserves their confidence and deserves to be their home.


Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page for daily articles, reports, and commentaries relevant to Memphis.