Monday, October 24, 2005

Tennessee Waltz, Like Katrina, Shows Racial Fault Lines

Hurricane Katrina was an event that revealed clearly the fissures that exist in the divergent world views of whites and African-Americans. Tennessee Waltz is another.

Here, white Commercial Appeal editorial writers flippantly dismiss African-American questions about the fairness of the federal investigation as off-base and without merit. In their responses, an FBI spokesman and a senior federal prosecutor essentially take a “trust us” attitude, saying they follow investigations wherever they lead.

But that’s disingenuous and is the crux of the issue. This wasn’t a traditional investigation. It was a sting operation in which FBI agents and prosecutors set out to entrap African-American elected officials. To this end, they pursued them in Memphis, in Nashville and even in Miami, and as individuals and as members of the Tennessee Black Caucus, spending more than $250,000 on the operation.

To brush off the pervasive concerns among African-Americans only bolsters their feelings that their voices are never heard and respected. For this reason alone, not to mention the interest of blind justice, African-Americans deserve more than pro forma answers from investigators and prosecutors. They deserve a better explanation of how and why this investigation was launched in the first place, and why it fixated on African-Americans.

Justice is nothing unless there is public credibility and confidence in its impartiality. The pervasive rumblings of doubt in a majority African-American city by its majority population require clearer, more complete explanations. At a time when racial profiling has come under increasing criticism, without more information, African-American fears only deepen the feeling that the Tennessee Waltz is profiling taken to a whole new level.

Empathy is a quality in short supply by those who dismiss African-American concerns. They should try just for a few moments to see Memphis from the vantage points of African-Americans.

Many feel that the highly publicized crackdowns by the Shelby County attorney general are at the expense of black people. They point out that in a city where more than 60 percent of the people are black, they can’t even change the names of parks named for Confederate heroes. They mention that the average salary of a white citizen of the Memphis region is twice the average salary of a black citizen. They tell about tax freezes that are granted for companies that pay below average salaries for workers who are largely African-American. They tell of the government subsidy of sprawl that enriched white developers.

In the justice system in which they are told to trust, African-Americans see their over-representation in prison populations by a factor of four. The U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest rate in the world, and since 1970, the number of people in prison increased six fold as the “prison-industrial complex” lobbied for tougher laws and enforcement on crimes like possession of marijuana while winning contracts to build the new jail cells. As a result, one in eight black men between the ages of 25 and 29 is in prison, and African-American men have a one in three chance of serving time in prison during their lifetimes.

There is an abiding belief in the black community, a belief always just below the surface, as we saw in New Orleans, that government policies – from human services to law enforcement, from workforce development to community development – set out to destroy the black family.

Looking at the statistics on how policies – backed by hundreds of millions of dollars - have only resulted in poverty as a birthright for a large segment of black Memphians, in 5,000 black men in local jails and infant mortality rates in some black neighborhoods higher than Haiti and Cuba, it is cavalier to simply wave off their concerns.

This is why Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey cautions in a recent column against the denial that obscures the racial divide in many cities and the “powder kegs ready to explode with the most random incident.”

In their book, Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America, authors Gary Alan Fine and Patricia A. Turner point out that rumors are a barometer for the social health of a city.

Rumors in New Orleans contended that the flooding in the Ninth Ward had been intentional while the white-populated Garden District was spared, that white people were evacuated first and that the federal government wanted to get rid of the black people in New Orleans and Katrina gave it an excuse to tear down their homes.

On the other side, white rumors moving through New Orleans claimed that the city looked like a third-world city and that African-Americans in the Dome were raping children, murdering old people and eating corpses.

Here, rumors move through the black community that the federal government is out to destroy any African-American politician. Meanwhile, whites repeat rumors that all Democratic elected officials (translation: black elected officials) are on the take.

Why does all of this matter? Unless lines of trust are stronger and there is a belief in the innate fairness of government services - particularly, the equity of enforcement and prosecution - Memphis will always be a wounded city limping into a global economy in which its divisiveness prevents any hope of success.

But, more fundamentally, until lines of trust are stronger, we fail at the basics of American democracy.

As long as African-Americans see racism in events like the Tennessee Waltz and white people complain that the African-American community is paranoid, we create a civic brand of quicksand that slowly pulls all of Memphis under, and at precisely the time that together, we need to be staking out a strong competitive place in the global economy.

This is why glib assurances about fairness from federal officials leading the Tennessee Waltz are not enough. For the sake of the city, they owe it to explain how they came to concentrate on African-American politicians in all branches of city, county and state governments. These investigations of elected officials must be sanctioned by officials in the Department of Justice in Washington, and it would be helpful if they too would elaborate on the justification that was given to them.

That would be a start in addressing rumors that undermine a feeling of full citizenship by many in the black community. Perhaps that could be the first step in dealing with the intractable problems of Memphis that are rooted in class and race and are well past time to solve.

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