Opinion: Economic justice means loving Memphis in the public eye

We have a plan for our parks and greenways, our Downtown, our workforce development, then why not a plan to address the biggest obstacle staring us in the face?  A locking of arms that says we will not be a community where this economic imbalance exists for future generations to toil over. 
This guest post is contributed by Darrell Cobbins, president and CEO of Universal Commercial. Cobbins will join four other Memphis business leaders for "Economic Justice in the City," a speaker event hosted by High Ground News at Clayborn Temple on February 28. Find out more about the free event here.

The respected theologian and professor Dr. Cornel West says that “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” 

In the context of economic justice, in Memphis and beyond, we must ask ourselves continually “where is the love?” How have we manifested our love for Memphis, and more importantly our fellow Memphians, through the prism of economics? 
 
There is no doubt that to examine our economics and and history, we must not be apprehensive to examine race as a component if we are to be authentic and honest in our pursuit of real solutions. 
 
Memphis’ history as a cotton metropolis for centuries created generational wealth that still benefits Memphis’ economic and philanthropic initiatives to this very day. 
 
Conversely, that same history has also contributed to generations of Memphians on the outside looking into the window of prosperity.  We cannot shy away from acknowledging this reality of historical economic imbalance if our goal is to create a better Memphis for future generations.
 
In late 2012, the Commercial Appeal published several installments of “POVERTY, Inc.” where reporters delved deeply into local poverty as an engine within the Memphis economy estimated at $200M+ annually.  It highlighted personal stories of the daily struggles of many individual Memphians as well as the public policy that funds and subsidizes initiatives and families in Memphis. 
 
After reading this important piece of work, I have long awaited the follow-up piece that should be entitled WEALTH, Inc., to illuminate the wealth and prosperity that exists in Memphis in spite of the high poverty rate that has persisted for so long.  Maybe this could better assist us in understanding this “Tale of Two Memphises” that exists since we have for decades focused so much attention on how much poverty exists. 
 
In 2015, a study performed by New York-based financial technology firm Smart Asset had Shelby County was ranked the No. 1 county in Tennessee for inherited wealth and No. 78 in the nation, which is ahead of Nashville/Davidson County by a wide margin. No county in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri or Kentucky ranked higher. 
 
In mid 2015, the bipartisan economic think tank Economic Innovation Group, in a report published in the Washington Post, ranked Memphis as the city in the nation with the highest economic disparity citing that 68 percent of its population lives in distressed areas. Coming in a distant second was Fresno, California with 48 percent. 
 
A thorough examination at both ends of this spectrum would be beneficial to Memphis in fostering a deeper understanding how we arrived where we are today, in an economic context, and help us chart a path forward that can effectively help grow prosperity in more corners of Memphis.
 
The esteemed author and social critic James Baldwin wrote, Not everything that is faced can changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
 
We can all agree that there have been significant strides socially in our community over time. We eat together, socialize, attend sporting events, concerts, serve on our boards and work hand in hand together all in the “grit-n-grind” spirit that has come to define Memphis and being a Memphian. 
 
The one area that plagues and impedes our progress is that of the economic imbalance that has persisted for generations and the opportunity cost for our city that accompanies this imbalance.  The business term “opportunity cost” is defined as “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.”
 
Crime, fatherless households, inadequate educational attainment, workforce readiness, blighted neighborhoods all have a root that connects back to the symbolic albatross of too many Memphians not fully participating and contributing to the local economy.
 
This is why privately I have urged specific local philanthropic and civic institutions to invest in the creation of a comprehensive plan to address the entrenched systemic poverty in Memphis. 
 
We have many social service organizations working tirelessly to address issues that derive from our severe economic imbalance. They should be lauded for their commendable love and dedication to deal with what most consider an intractable issue.
 
My desire, however, is to see a knitting together of the work of these organizations into a unified collective response with responsibility, accountability, and periodic reporting to the broader community on moving the needle in the opposite direction of where it is pointing today.
 
We have a plan for our parks and greenways, our Downtown, our workforce development, then why not a plan to address the biggest obstacle staring us in the face?  A locking of arms that says we will not be a community where this economic imbalance exists for future generations to toil over. 
 
It ends on our watch. Then, and only then, will we be able to demonstrate to the nation what loving Memphis looks like in public.
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