So, the question now is what can the outrage over the racist rant by a Memphian that strafed a Caribbean service worker accomplish?

Yes, it’s a potent reminder of how blatant racism slithers out from under its rock when we least expect it.

Yes, it’s a reminder of how the feelings of frustration run deep at white privilege and institutional racism.

Yes, it’s a measure of satisfaction that bigots’ racism isn’t as open – or openly accepted – as it was only a few decades ago.

Yes, it’s a reminder that we still need to come to grips with the structures, notably the economic ones, that are the product of the exploitative thinking on display.

Reflections of Exploitation

It was this underlying exploitative attitude that was so vividly on display in the Turks and Caicos: a person of color exists only to satisfy a Caucasian’s needs and whims.

It was the kind of attitude that built this country’s economy and that allows the vilification of minorities as a political strategy even today.  It also produces economic policy built on low wage jobs and with widespread acceptance that our workforce means that we can do no better.

The racist rant qualifies as news today, but it’s easy to report on these kinds of stories, but rather than bursts of coverage of unforgivable behavior, where is the coverage of reality and not just rants?

In that context, the coverage of the latest outrageous conduct is a distraction, but to be distracted means that our attention is diverted from something else.   If only that were the case here and it was diverting our concentrated focus on creating a culture of opportunity.

New Urban Crisis

The truth is we know what the problems are. We’ve been talking about reducing poverty for at least 30 years, but it feels like we’re often nibbling around the edges with symptoms rather than causes when we need a comprehensive plan of action to deal with the brand of third-world poverty that exists in too many Memphis neighborhoods.

We don’t seem to get around to the kind of in-depth, honest, no holds barred discussions needed on issues like inequality, economic segregation, exploitative economic policies, and institutional racism.  That’s when we “act Southern” and those subjects make people uncomfortable, but particularly when they open us up to examining our past and how it formed our present.

Only a few days before the racist tirade dominated the news, there was no outrage or news coverage with release of information about the New Urban Crisis defined by Richard Florida.  It measured wage inequality and income inequality; overall economic segregation along income, educational, and occupational lines; and the unaffordability of housing, and Memphis MSA ranks #10 among regions with more than one million people.

That said, Memphis MSA is an anomaly among the others on the list which are characterized by being larger, denser, richer, more high-tech, and with more creative class members.

Unlike most of the metros on the list, Memphis did not get there because of the back-to-the-city movement of the affluent and the educated.  Rather, here, the deep divisions were already here.  Other MSAs in the top 10 are Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, and Austin.

We Choose To Make It This Way

To repeat, the ranking tells us what we already know.  While the news media concentrates on billions of dollars in new investment and exciting new developments, the truth is that on the indicators that matter, Memphis is not moving up, and in the ranking of the 50 largest metropolitan areas, we are moving in the wrong direction.

We have to come face-to-face with that fact.

We’re not saying the obligation to rage against the rant isn’t important and clearly justified – it reminds us of values that we should share and behaviors we will not accept – but the risk is that our rage is seen as the outcome when the real outcome should be substantive actions and results that are real progress on the issues that matter.

Economic justice is the issue of our times, and confronting it head-on offers Memphis the opportunity to position it on the leading edge of a question with national ramifications.  But more importantly, it offers Memphis the chance to change the lives of more than 150,000 men, women, and children trapped in poverty as a result of racially-based federal policies that historically prevented the accumulation of wealth by African Americans and even today thwarts upward mobility and creates barriers to move to the economic mainstream.

All of this is not just happenstance.  It exists because of choices, and our country and our community is perfectly designed to produce the results it does.  It is in coming to grips with the fact that we chose for Memphis to be this way that we realize that different choices have the power to change the future.

Grit and Grind

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 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 neighborhoods, where the need is dire, they see face to face the consequences of concentrated deep poverty, and they wonder when it is their time.  While downtown and the riverfront have generated 100 plans over the past 25 years, there have been few targeted plans for high-poverty 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, because the single greatest determinant for a person’s future prospects is the neighborhood where they are born.

Tough Odds

Today, in large measure, geography is destiny, and for too many Memphians, it is a destiny of limited opportunity and dashed hopes.  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 where they are born 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.

These are the issues that deserve our rage and our demands for action.

All the motivational speeches, inspirational speakers, and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric merely overlay middle class attitudes on lives of poverty, 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.

Third Century Ambitions

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 two years away from celebrating its bicentennial.  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 confront it to change the city’s trajectory…and its narrative…and its future.

One final note about the rant.  It was a news peg that the person recorded was the grandchild of infamous Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, but the leaps of logic and connecting of disparate dots to the point of dragging another branch of the Loeb family, Bob and Louis Loeb, and their business, Loeb Properties, into the controversy felt like stereotyping and guilt by association.  Most white Southerners are only a generation or two away from embarrassing family stories rooted in racism.  That’s the reason it’s been 50 years since I’ve seen relatives in Arkansas who were speaking in tongues and spewing hate when I last saw them.


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