Thursday, July 09, 2009

Back To The Future With Memphis City Council

We are repeating a post from June, 2007, whose point we thought we had moved beyond:

It is an aphorism – though none the less true – that the most segregated hour in Memphis is at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Surely it’s equally true that the most racially-corrosive time in Memphis is any time City Council meets.

Its members proved it again last night.

The Time Machine

It’s as if our city’s leaders are trapped in a time warp where only an H.G. Wells plot line could get them into the present, a present where their racial rhetoric is more and more revealed for its fossilized underpinnings, where their obsession with all things racial is seen for its antediluvian view of our city and where their role models of irrelevancy on race relations is exposed for the burlesque that it is.

It’s as if most Council members have no concept of the responsibilities that come with the gift of public leadership. At a time when we should be celebrating the power of ideas and our diversity, most members cling to the power of prejudice.

Lost in this mélange of Tuesday buffoonery is the reality that their words and actions are in fact poisoning the civic culture of the city. If racial polarization is a malignancy in Memphis, it seems clear that the place to lance the boil is Memphis City Council.

The World In Black And White

It is there that anything – absolutely anything – can get cast in shades of black and white. It wasn’t too long ago that one of the Council members, in the midst of his regular rants, referred to lessons learned from the slave masters. If these lessons included the use of racial invective, insulting epithets and demeaning posturing, there’s no question that he was a star pupil.

In this respect, yesterday’s Council meeting was classic.

Whether it was the Riverfront Development Corporation’s Beale Street Landing project, the request by Lemoyne-Owen College for $3 million or consideration of new ethics rules, Council members were capable of dragging it down to the lowest common denominator in public debate.

Liberal Guilt

We admit that we’ve often explained away the rhetoric of African-American Council members like this: after years of being frozen out of the political system in any meaningful way, they had no real choice but to become adept at using the kind of language that gives them the only power they could muster – the power to shut down public debate by injecting charges of racism. As more than one sociologist has pointed out, it was in this victimization that African-Americans enjoyed one of the few times when they could shift the balance of power and control the conversation.

But these days, we have less patience. These divisive exercises are more than mere political games; they are in fact holding back our city and thwarting its growth. Rather than take the experiences of discrimination and use it to create an open, diverse system of thought and participation, some Council members seem almost intent on reinventing the same malignant environment of the past that brutalized them.

At times, it’s as if the fact that we live in a city with an African-American city mayor, an African-American county mayor, an African-American City Council majority and an African-American majority in our state legislative delegation counts for nothing.

Code Of Conduct

But that's not saying that the white members deserve any prizes. They seem adept at pushing the exact issue guaranteed to create racial conflict and controvery. They seem to think that putting together a majority 7-6 vote and ramming it through the system is the same as exhibiting mature leadership. They contribute and often cause an atmosphere where basic empathy and understanding seem to be the first victims of debate.

If Memphis City Council really wants to demonstrate its maturity, it would tone down the racial rants and adopt a general code of conduct. Most of all, Council members would stop their reflexive charges of racism against anyone with whom they disagree or who represents a project they oppose.

This trend reached its zenith a few weeks ago when yet another person appearing before the Council was accused of being a bigot. Apparently, the fact that he was an active and impassioned champion of the civil rights movement was lost to the fogs of history.

It was a charge that struck the person at his moral core, because he had tried to make racial equality a central theme of his life. And yet, it was a charge tossed about cavalierly by a Council member who disagreed with his position. To the Council member, it was just an instrument of political theater, but to the citizen, it was the same as questioning his personal integrity and character.

The Virus

What's lost is the chance for our public square to be a place where we can confront our past honestly and calmly while charting a bolder future in which we all join hands to accomplish.

Instead of being the place where this kind of substantive discussion takes place, City Council ultimately fails in its first job – to create the common ground where citizens are encouraged to debate, discuss and engage in the substantive issues facing Memphis. Most of all, they fail to be the models for how this kind of respectful, consensus-building discussion should take place.

To the contrary, Council Chambers – with its trappings of past glories and present neglect – has become an environment hostile to most managers of city government, much less average citizens.

New Voices

Standing outside the Council chambers during much of the meeting, an African-American woman in her early 20’s, working as an intern in City Hall, said she couldn’t bear to listen.

“It’s the kind of arguing we (people her age) don’t care about,” she said. “The folks in there are always looking for the chance to march and to demonstrate or to talk about the old days and how bad they were treated. But they’re not representing us. They don’t even ask us. We can live anywhere we want, we can have any friends we want, we can live in any city we want and we just want the chance to succeed. We’re not interesting in fighting these old battles. They’re just a waste of time.”

And that’s the saddest thing of all. Council members most prone to lapse into this kind of destructive rhetoric have no concept that to many young people, regardless of their race, all they are proving is how out of touch they really are.

A Chill In The Air

More to the point, all this does nothing so effectively as having a chilling effect on the development of new public leadership at the time when it is needed most.

Next time you think there’s a lack of smart, savvy, young, potential leaders in Memphis, visit FedEx World Headquarters’ cafeteria at lunch time.

It’s a visit that is striking in its effect, because it’s clear that Memphis has thousands of African-American professionals calling the shots in one of the world’s most admired corporations, taking the slings and arrows that come every day in their highly pressurized industry. And yet, they refuse to get involved in the mean streets of public life in Memphis, considering it laughable at best and an indictment of the city at worst.

Reality Check

About 12 hours after the City Council session, we were in a meeting with some people who work every day to solve some of Memphis’ worst problems. They aren’t elected. They avoid City Council meetings like the plague. They work at the grassroots. They work to engage community organizations in the hard work of community-building.

They unanimously agree that the racial chasm amplified in the news media exists primarily in the halls of government, where ritualized racial posturing defines the culture there. They tell of a different Memphis, one where community and neighborhood organizations all over the city are working on the grittiest issues and doing it with little regard to the fact that there are two races at the table.

Instead, they recognize the differences that come from their experiences, and they use them to unify them and strengthen their plans of action. When they talk about race, they talk calmly as friends exploring the boundaries of understanding and tolerance.

The Real Memphis

It was a well-timed reality check.

We can read about Council meetings, we can listen to the verbal bombasts that take place there and we can shake our heads over the wasted energy and time when so much in Memphis needs our leaders’ attention.

But, we should never make the mistake that Memphis City Council reflects what’s really going on in Memphis.

That’s because the real progress is being made at the grassroots, and that’s also where the Council could learn an awful lot about deliberation, decision-making and consensus-building.

There’s no time like the present.


Zippy the giver said...

Wow, it's no surprise that this is repeating itself, it's like an endless loop from 40+ years ago.
The people in charge have severe psychological problems and many are pathological liars.
They'll say anything to get back in, no matter who gets hurt or killed in the fomenting of racism in the minds of ignorant followers, who probably don't interact with people of other races on purpose, based on rumor, myth, lies, and bias. They do act to destroy the other races whenever they can.
That's what people here don't get. That's why people here are at a loss to figure out why people don't move here, or, stay here when they do. They can't wait to get away, hallmark of a dying city: The young people move out, a few thousand a year every year.
Great post. Glad you brought it back.

Anonymous said...

So true. So sad.

Anonymous said...

That's the thing zippy, very few places are like here, and that ain't a good thing. It's an indictment of this city (and metro area). There are so many other places to live that aren't poisoned by race.

Zippy the giver said...

I know.
It's pathetic.
Grown people should not be so petty and play so small. Every effort is half baked. The recipe never followed. The real recipe is scoffed at and the messenger branded a heretic.
Herenton and his ilk never had a clue, his soul-less minions clammer for supremacy with nothing more than feigned indignance and manufactured stories to foment those predisposed to hate and commit crime.
He claims people's careers were interrupted, how many did he interrupt with his dirty deeds?
How many suffered from his policy of blanket ignorance? How many suffered from not doing anything about crime till the last minute?
How many lost out on deals he made in back rooms, subverting fair and legal practices for illegal deals. How happy was he that there was no transparency?
Real Happy!
Carpenter helped put him in office, Chumney ran to keep him in, Ford is running to split the vote, and look at all the jealous people trying to make fun of someone who's lawful duty it is to assume the mayor's role since Herenton is leaving.
They have no hope of winning anything if the election is real, if Lowery runs.
The only thing resonating with voters now is the hollow promises of every one of those nut cases who desperately need a psyche eval.
No class from Whalum, No class from Herenton, No class from Ford. Carpenter even running shows NO CLASS, just for the after effects of his work helping get Herenton in so many times.
This is a NO CLASS town.

Zippy the giver said...

As for Kenneth Whalum's "classless" performance and touting of his 83,900 votes stats, that means that he pandered to easy sentiments nothing else, it didn't resonate, it pandered.
Willy pandered too, where did Memphis go under his stewardship? DOWN THE TUBES, and of course it's someone else's fault.

Anonymous said...

I agree totally with your article,


You conviently forget that these people were ELECTED by a MAJORITY of their respective voters, so as such are a DIRECT reflection of the individual communities they represent.

I used to put the blame on these representitives as well, and still hold them to task, as they should be above all of this garbage as civic leaders, but the stark reality is as I've said:

At the end of the day, they are a DIRECT reflection of their constituents.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to throw out another idea which most people will disagree. A lot of the problems on the Council result from the "Sunshine Law" designed to make sure that government policymaking was done in the open, for the public to see.

As a result of the law, two or more council members are afraid to meet privately for an in depth and brutally honest but informal discussion of issues at hand. Lawmaking is a result of bargaining, compromise, and consensus building (sausage-making). Having to do this before cameras greatly inhibits the ability to get effective work done.

I also believe it harms the ability for the group of 13 to develop a working relationships.

For example, you would not find some African American Council members saying that are against hiring out of town policemen due to traditional racial reasons in public but they might explain this to white council members in private.

For all of the idealism of the sunshine law, some of it goes too far and I would hope that, sometime in the future, it could be modified (not eliminated) to allow for this type of action which is more realistic when considering that legislators are simply humans with the same emotions as others.

Anonymous said...

Why hire out of town police officers if they can't be taxed for their services. Tha drains Memphis tax dollars in the long run. If Memphis and Shelby County was consolidated form of govt we would have more officers by default to cover this vast area. Zippy, sometimes you fail to realize that in other cities the focus is on education, economic development and mobility including mass transit. Most of your comments are philosophical rhetoric.

Zippy the giver said...

Anonymous 8:47,
NO. If you are scared, stay home. If you are going to say something you shouldn't even be entertaining, then don't.
We didn't elect you for emotions, we elected people wise enough to be beyond their personal felings. Put your feelings in a briefcase and throw them under a bus, did it hurt? No, because they aren't a physical reality. Get over it, it's the law. Learn to work within the law, it's there for a damn good reason!

Anonymous 10:09
Yeah, I know. Sad, idnit?

Anonymous 8:18
I don't for one single second believe that the voting system in memphis is not 100% manipulated by the fudge time factor of reporting deaths to the election commission and gathering name s off headstones. GEE I don't wonder who's in charge of THAT.
This is a direct reflection on what happens when you don't uphold the laws in good faith for extended periods and then enact laws not in the spirit with which laws are to be enacted (to support thuggery).
Wake the hell up!

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Its really nice, I agree to tally with your article,

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