Simple rule in life: the best way to avoid being called a racist is not to act like one.
That seems straightforward enough, but Republican state legislators just can’t quit the behavior that gives the accusation credence.
After all, it’s pretty strong evidence when White right wing state legislators are intent on telling Black Memphis and its officials what they can do, how they can do it, and if they can do it at all.
It is at its essence Jim Crow 2.
Although the term more often refers to the voter suppression tactics by right wing extremists to deny the vote to African Americans, it too applies to the Tennessee Legislature’s tactics to suppress the political power of the Black majority of Memphis and their elected officials.
Direct Aim At Black Power
We don’t know what’s in an individual’s heart but we do know that the heart of the actions by the White Tennessee Legislature supermajority is anti-democratic at its core and proves that entrenched structural racism continues to corrupt the honest and fair exercise of American democracy.
Because of it, bills to reduce the self-determination of officials elected by Memphians are racist, the product of a plantation mentality that runs through so many actions by the Republican supermajority when it comes to all things Memphis.
To borrow the words of Jackson, Mississippi, officials where that state’s White legislature is attempting to take over the city’s courts and policing, the attack on Memphis’ political power and its right to make its own decisions based on the will of its people is a blatant symbolic decapitation of Black leadership.
Maybe that ugly Mississippi attempt by a majority-White state legislature to take over a majority African American city inspired similar proposals here to dictate court decisions and policing by Tennessee Senator Brent Taylor.
In his now almost weekly statements and proposals, he displays a fundamental lack of knowledge on issues ranging from bail to prosecutorial discretion and the peaceful policing of protests and the racial profiling connected to pretextual traffic stops. Partisan threats are directed often at Shelby County Attorney General Steve Mulroy but towing the party line, he is mute about how the data show the cause and effect from the proliferation of guns and the rise in crime in Memphis.
Inconsistent and Hypocritical
Meanwhile, Rep. Mark White once again threatens to interfere in the decisions of the democratically elected Memphis and Shelby County Board of Education with his own proposed legislation to put six state members appointed by the governor on the local school board. He offers no evidence about how a larger school board would operate better but that’s not the actual intent. Rather, it is to get six dependable votes that will deliver his opinions which are regularly at odds with school board decisions and policies. He said that he was not impressed by the three finalists for superintendent, but, by the way, he just happens to know people from Memphis who can do the job. Figures.
Proving that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, legislators wanted to cut the size of the Nashville Metro Council by 50% but in Memphis, Mr. White proposes to increase the school board size by 40%. He previously blackmailed the same school board to force them to sell four schools to suburban school districts and it led to a wheel tax increase by Shelby County.
Further hypocrisy is seen at a time when the Legislature is considering the rejection of federal funding for schools because they complain of “top-down” mandates, they engage in the same top-down behavior themselves.
Mr. Taylor and Mr. White were elected to the Legislature from majority White districts comprised of East Memphis and suburban towns. Their political conceit trivializes the opinions expressed by Memphis voters at the ballot box in order to mandate their ideology in a city that firmly prefers a different direction and agenda.
Traveling to Get Their Way
Like the overseers of old, however, state legislators seek ultimate control to determine what African Americans can be trusted to do for themselves – in this case, self-government. It should be inescapable that their actions are aimed directly at restricting the ability of Black Memphis officials to make the decisions they were elected to make and to hamstring the decisions of an elected official like Mr. Mulroy to carry out the criminal justice reform that was endorsed wholeheartedly by Memphis voters at the polls.
Mr. Taylor and Mr. White come from majority White districts and travel 210 miles to the east where they are members of a legislative supermajority that looks, thinks, and acts like them.
In the Legislative Plaza of the Capitol, Mr. Taylor and Mr. White can tell their horror stories about their hometown to a receptive audience whose majority comes from rural and small towns and whose political underpinnings have a palpable belief that majority African American cities like Memphis are incapable of self-government.
It leads the supermajority to keep a target on the back of an African American legislator like Rep. Justin Pearson as they continue to threaten his removal from the body if he doesn’t act like they want him to. That’s despite his reelection with 94% of the vote in a district that is 61% Black. It’s easy to imagine that he has been described as “uppity” by the extreme right legislators who attack him.
It leads the supermajority to tell Memphis it cannot implement its living wage requirement. It told Memphis that it must eliminate its police review board. There is more but the point is that the Legislature has no qualms about forcing its political opinions on Memphis.
Warped Political Purpose
In this way, the Legislature is the perfect echo chamber for the Legislature’s decrees of their partisan dogma into local decisions. It is the equivalent of a medieval court where the real world is cut off from the laws they are passing, where real people are merely treated as collateral damage, and where bit players gain power by doling out indulgences and favors to the chosen ones. The legislators exist in a world where they are treated as if power equates to intelligence and pandering is the same as political leadership. It is a byproduct from the hot house of self-importance that drives their tribal view of state government and a disdain for the democratic sharing of power.
Memphis is the center of a region whose GDP is $100 billion. It is a significant part of the Tennessee GDP. It remains the jobs center for the entire region. It has serious challenges and some of them are exacerbated by state government – think guns and Medicaid.
At their best, state laws should act as the scaffolding for local self-government, but instead Mr. Taylor and Mr. White thumb their noses at Memphis’ home rule authority in service of a dictatorial role in the intergovernmental family.
The noble purpose of politics should be to serve democracy, but today, actions like theirs are anathema to democracy itself.