Monday, June 01, 2009

Anti-Discrimination Vote Is Good Business

Memphis has no margin for error.

Because of it, decisions like the one today on a county anti-discrimination ordinance are much more than parochial controversies.

To the contrary, all that we do now is amplified and magnified, and a vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in favor of the fairness could become a much-needed positive national headline about our city.

At a time when tolerance is a selling point for cities, a vote against the ordinance would stake out our claim to intolerance and sanctimony. It will chill efforts to recruit young professionals and immigrants to Memphis, and make no mistake about it, the success of cities today are directly related to both.

We are at a seminal point in Memphis history. Everything matters.

Already, our economic development officials are hobbled by our reputation as a race-conscious city racked by conflict. Their sales pitches are shaken by crime statistics and corruption.

If you add to that the need to explain why guns are needed here in parks and restaurants and why discrimination would win in a vote by our county legislators, the Chamber is left to push a large boulder uphill with potential businesses.

We can only hope that our county elected officials do what is right. They will if they remember that they are public officials, not religious officials.

While their private religious beliefs are important in defining who they are, it should not define their votes today. In truth, their votes are about our future and the chance to break from past prejudices and to reject the brand of politics that would treat some of our citizens as “less than.”

It’s a historic vote today, and its ripples will reach far beyond our county borders and define us as a people. If we are to stand for anything as a city, surely it is for fairness, equal rights, and our common humanity. We can only hope that our county commissioners will do the same.

Here’s our earlier post about the economic consequences of today’s vote:

Memphis is like the actor looking for the chance to take a role against type.

We need something dramatic to send the message that we’re not your grandfather’s Memphis, that we’re not stuck in time and that we’re not a group of Bible-thumping, intolerant bigots.

That’s why the vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners on an ordinance promising non-discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered persons is a crucible for our community.

It’s not often that a legislative body has a chance to do something so right. Or so smart.

Starring In A New Role

That’s because the ordinance gives us a powerful opportunity to act against type and send the message that this old river city is shedding a reputation that we’ve had too long and that we now find repugnant.

In a city that has suffered from the bitter fruit of bigotry and discrimination, it would seem self-evident that we should jump at the opportunity to be on the side of fairness and equality. But despite the lessons that we should have learned, we remain a place where intolerance flourishes on occasion.

As a result, the new ordinance – which only applies to county employees and companies working for county government – is a welcome development, and Commissioner Steve Mulroy deserves a commendation for the political courage to advance it to a board of commissioners’ agenda, but we’re sure that some commissioners will instead opt to vote for discrimination, but such is the lingering brand of prejudice cloaked in the flag and Scripture verses to hide its ugliness.

Despite this, we’re hopeful that a majority of our county commissioners will understand the importance of this moment in history for our community. You see, while voting for this ordinance is morally right, it is also economically wise.

That’s because tolerance is no longer a virtue. It’s essential to compete in the knowledge economy.

Prima Facie Case

Here’s how the dots connect: the presence of talent in a city today determines its economic success, the percentage of 25-34 year-olds in a city is the key determinant and these crucial members of the workforce are looking to work and live in cities that are clean, green and safe and that are places where they can live the life they want to live.

In other words, they want a city open enough to accept them as they are, welcoming enough to offer ways to plug in with others like themselves and accepting enough to reserve their judgments.

In this way, gays are the canaries in the coal mine. It’s been said that cities with significant gay populations are more successful, but it’s not just because gays have been key to neighborhood revitalization, development of the cultural and arts scene and to a city’s vibrancy.

More to the point, if a city is welcoming to gays, it is prima facie evidence that it is diverse and welcoming to everyone, and it is the presence of that level of tolerance and acceptance of others that is a magnet for talented young people looking for place where they can live the life they want to live.

Undervalued Tolerance

Tolerance as a selling point is vastly underrated and misunderstood in Memphis. But more and more, it is becoming a priority for cities that understand how it helps to attract and retain knowledge economy workers.

In our work in developing talent strategies for a half dozen large cities, it’s a common and compelling theme. It’s not simply something that comes up as a footnote in interviews, focus groups and research. To the contrary, it is uppermost in the minds of the young, college-educated people as they decide where they will work and live. It’s not that they are asking if cities have a vibrant gay culture. Rather, they ask about ways in which the city welcomes their opinions and accepts their choices, and there is no more telling indicator that the presence and acceptance of gays and lesbians.

It is in this way that the gay population is an indicator of the fundamental character of a city and serves as a foreshadowing to other indicators of economic success. To prove the point, Memphis’ rank at the bottom of the list of cities with gay populations is also where it is ranked on variety of other economic measurements.

The need for the ordinance is a sad commentary on the discrimination and bigotry still directed at gays, lesbians and transgendered people in our nation, but already, cities that are seen as open-minded are on the right side of the great national migration of young, talented workers.

A Better Image

Memphis and Shelby County are way on the wrong side of this migration. Since 1990, Shelby County has lost 33,300 25-34 year-olds, and we’ve already lost more of this group in the first six years of this century than in all of the 1990s. We’re in the process of determining how many of these had college degrees, but based on the preliminary numbers, it’s doesn’t look promising.

It’s worth remembering that two out of three of these people – the gold standard for the knowledge-based economy – pick where they live before they pick where they work, and they say that they want to live in a city where each can “live the life that I want to lead.”

Here’s the thing about the Board of Commissioners’ vote. If it fails, it’s a devastating blow to our already faltering national image through a toxic display of intolerance that will undoubtedly garner national media coverage. The good news is that if it passes, it will garner even more.

Maybe, before it’s over, we can actually attract some national attention for our ability to transcend our differences and abandon the bomb-throwing judgmental behavior that defines us too much nationally.

Setting The Future Context

As we said, voting for the county ordinance is much more than simple decency (although that would be reason enough). Rather, it’s an exercise in economic necessity.

In a world of multitudinous ethnic groups, an assortment of religions, different sexual orientations and collections of cultures, a city that can’t respect its own differences can never connect - or compete - in a world whose overwhelming characteristic is its diversity.

Or put another way, a city that is open, inclusive and tolerant has the best chance of competing for the kinds of jobs – and workers - that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.


packrat said...

I hate to spring it on you, SC, but the bellevue crowd thinks all Memphis needs to do is to turn to Christ and then we'll prosper as a city. Of course, we all know that the reason cities like Austin, Tx, Charlotte, Portland, nashville, etc., are prospering while we founder is that those cities have more devout Christians.....of course, I agree with what you posted, for the little that's worth.

Anonymous said...

how many interior decorators dow we NEED in county government, anyway?

Anonymous said...

SCM seems to be "Gay Obsessed." You make post after post saying that we should make homosexuals and those who are going through a gender identity crisis status as a protected class. You have said at least twice that a key to prosperity is to attract more gays.

Tell you what, let's have a campaign to encourage heterosexuals (97+%) and those without college degrees to leave the area for the good of Memphis. While we're at it, let's forget being a family friendly city with good schools, parks, and other amenities which INCLUDES a good faith based community since accommodations for gays is much more important.

Adrienne said...

Way to totally miss the point anonymous 8:51. SCM writes about dozens of issues a month - the recent posts about gay rights just happen to be timely with what is currently going on in our city. Attracting gays and creative-minded folks is just one of the many things that makes a city more creative, accepting, and can eventually lead to prosperity and outside talent being drawn in to work and live here. We def. have a large faith-based community here but I would hardly call it good - more like intolerant and discriminating. Very few churches in the area actually teach about love and equality. Too many folks in town wield their religious beliefs to judge their neighbors and push down those different than them. I am saddended and shocked that the citizens of this town who witnessed the civil rights struggle are poised to repeat the same mistakes. How can anyone justify withholding equal rights from another group simply because they do not share their same beliefs? No matter race or sexual orientation, we are all human beings and should have the exact same rights and privileges.

b said...

This should be a no-brainer, but thanks anyway for re-explaining it. It's a shame that 8:44 and 8:51 misunderstand the need for a DIVERSE community, and not just one that conforms to their narrow view.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 8:51.

We'd respond specifically if we knew what the hell you were saying. At any rate, right now, we're obsessed all right - with this city doing what it needs to be successful.

If this ordinance is voted down, comfort yourself with the growing number of young professionals going to Nashville and the immigrants going everywhere but here.

This isn't some abstract issue to us. It's dollars and cents economics. But more than money, it's simple morality - Golden Rule kind of stuff, remember the Golden Rule?

You still don't get the point. We're not saying that prosperity is tied to simply attracting more gays. The point is that if we are such a welcoming city that gays feel at home here, we will prima facie be a welcoming city for the kinds of creative, young workers that we need if we are to compete in this economy.

Let's spell it together: C-O-M-P-E-T-E. That's what this ordinance is about. We are making a lot of wrong decisions and a vote against this ordinance would be chief among them.

Finally, we've written about schools, parks, amenities, civic self-confidence, etc., multidinous times. And we've even written about the faith leaders who understand that religion is about inclusion, not exclusion, and the importance they play in our city.

But most of all, this is not abstract to us because many of our closest friends, family members, and civic leaders are gay, and they deserve the same chances that the rest of us do.

And when they do, we will know that the promise of our faith and our democracy is a reality. We did it for women and African-Americans. It's time to do it for gays and lesbians.

Tom Guleff said...

I am just curious (not trying to start a fight with anyone), but what was the impetuous for Commissioner Steve Mulroy bringing forward the ordinance ?

Is there any background on (local) past attempts or grievances associated with this proposed ordinance ?

antisocialist said...

Tom Guleff:

I'm not trying to start a fight either. Like you, I also wonder what the impetus for this was too.

County Government has a zero tolerance sexual harassment policy in place that already provided workplace protection. I wonder what, if anything, made the current policy insufficient.

I am skeptical about the economic arguments, but it seems the zero tolerance policy already in place addressed the Golden Rule part of the equation.

Zippy the giver said...

Does it specifically address gays or the legal recourse for the victims regarding harrassing gays?

antisocialist said...

If I am reading the news reports correctly, it turns out the ordinance was not approved at all. Instead a resolution (less than a page in length) was passed that prohibits discrimination against ANY Shelby County Government employee on the basis of non-merit factors. The resolution apparently doesn't even mention sexual orientation, gay, lesbian, or transgender.

Since it is unenforceable, it appears to be a hollow victory for proponents of an enforceable ordinance specifying protection for gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.

Smart City Consulting said...


You are wrong. The resolution is enforceable, and it has the same force of law as an ordinance. As the county attorney ruled, there is no difference on this issue between an ordinance and a resolution.

Equally important, a court will look to the legislative intent for guidance in considering claims against the county, and it is very, very clear that the commissioners intend for this to cover sexual orientation.

It wasn't perfect, but it was a clear win.

Smart City Consulting said...


It appears that the impetus is classic politics. Commissioner Mulroy was contacted by a group of constituents who asked for his help with this issue, and the outcome of those meetings was the anti-discrimination ordinance.


This isn't about sexual harassment. That's a totally different issue. It's more fundamental. It's about being able to be who you are at work without fear of retaliation and all managers know that they are at risk to engage in that behavior. And believe me, it exists.

Zippy the giver said...

Can't be fired on the basis of nonmeritorial. That's a better resolution than most have! Nice work, that's right, I'm giving a compliment, it's appropriate!
Let's make it state law for everyone now and this place won't look so much like HE double toothpicks.

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