50 years after Dr. King's death, racial and economic disparities persist in Memphis, panelists say

On the evening of February 27 at the National Civil Rights Museum, Dr. Elena Delavega stood in front a full auditorium in the converted motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his last minutes. With the words “child poverty” as her projected backdrop, the University of Memphis professor’s six years of data collecting culminated with the cutting question:

“How can we look our kids in the eye and tell them to make the effort and get their education and they will be fine?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

She was referring to the fact laid out in her annual Memphis and Shelby County poverty report, which shows that although the rate of African-Americans completing high school has risen 76 percent since Brown vs. Board of Education, median income for black Memphians remains at half of that of whites.

With the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis weighing heavily on the city, a panel that moderator Tom Jones called the “brain trust” assembled to respond to the report and discuss how a city enables racial and economic disparities when it chooses to focus on tourism rather than citizens, prosecution rather than justice, businesses over people, and grant money over social responsibility.

Delavega has tracked poverty indicators in Memphis and Shelby County since 2012, but her recent report based on 2016 data takes a retroactive perspective.  

For the first time, Delavega’s poverty report compared Memphis’ current poverty conditions with those since 1968, the year King was assassinated. By using federal census data dating back to 1950, Delavega shows a portrait of Memphis where economic opportunities for black Memphians have not improved – and in some cases, have worsened.

"The Poverty Report: Memphis since MLK" can be viewed here. 

The State of Affairs

The panel consisted of Dr. Stacy Spencer, Wendi Thomas, Josh Spickler, Brad Watkins and Dr. Kenneth Robinson, who represent some of the institutions in Memphis working towards social change. The panelists were not surprised by Delavega's findings. 

Moderator Tom Jones and panelists (L to R) Stacy Spencer, Wendi Thomas, Josh Spickler, Brad Watkins and Dr. Kenneth Robinson. (Dylan Sandifer)

Dr. Kenneth Robinson, CEO of United Way of the Mid-South, said the annual report is a driving force for action and that he is “tired of seeing the same numbers” year after year.

For example, since 2000, child poverty is up overall, but black children are in poverty at four times the rate of white kids in Memphis. Delavega explained how children are poor because their parents are impoverished by factors like disproportionate incarceration of black residents that makes employment more difficult to secure. Incarceration of black people in Shelby County has increased 50 percent since 1980 while rates for whites have decreased.

Even for black Memphians who secure employment, they will be managers half as often as whites and their income will be half as much. Considering these factors, the African-American poverty rate is two and a half times higher than that of whites in Memphis.

Spencer, senior pastor of New Direction Christian Church and founding member of the faith-based justice organization MICAH said Memphis is a “sick city”. He focused on the pivotal role the church could have in using its resources and community structure to remedy poverty in a city with 3,000 congregations.

Related: "Memphis faith leaders unite to address poverty, education and criminal justice"

Each panelist focused on a primary cause of the disparities noted in the report such Memphis' lack of organizing, racist prosecution policies, low wages and the role of nonprofits hold in incentivizing poverty as they continue pulling federal funds into the city.

Supported by Delavega’s data, the panelists discussed that systems in place in Memphis, including government, businesses, criminal justice, churches, and nonprofits, often work to perpetuate inequalities in income, especially across racial lines.

Thomas, editor and founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, focused on income disparities caused by employers who do not pay a living wage and city governance that focuses on subsidizing wealthy businesses with large tax breaks, regardless of their treatment of employees.

“Poverty persists because somebody profits from it,” Thomas said.

“The system is not broken; the system is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. Ask, ‘Who is benefitting from this suffering?’”

Delavega suggested that wages tend to be equal in government jobs because jobs and salaries are posted publicly and that wage discrimination can be curbed with a culture of transparency.

Thomas suggested a redistribution of wealth brought on by economic boycott and protest.

“If you can get people in their pocket things will change. If you had people picketing outside the EDGE [Economic Development Growth Engine], I guarantee you things would change,” Thomas said.

Complex problems, many solutions

Continually present throughout the evening’s discussion was the tension between participating in the systems in order to change them and the moral argument to end disparities through radical solutions.

Just City’s executive director, Spickler, challenged Memphians to embrace the ballot box as a means of changing the system. He also highlighted the Memphis Community Bail Fund, which amends the disparities of cash bail by using community-raised funds to pay bail.

Spickler emphasized that these injustices are being done “in our name” because they are buttressed by the officials Memphians elect. He noted that positions like judges and clerks often have even more power over individuals lives than the mayor or city council and that voters should focus on those elections.

Related: "Driving the Dream addresses 'paternalistic' approach, creates a new system for treating poverty"

Watkins, executive director of Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, pointed to city leadership as a source of discriminatory policies and suggested that citizens must build a culture of organizing in our communities.

“The issue with our story — and that’s the perfect word for it, because instead of seeing this data reflected in the narrative that’s put out in our city, we’re being expected to constantly embrace a fairy tale of false positivity … It’s all data that we know,” Watkins said.

“And yet we have a city policy that’s more interested in cheerleading and big projects and grand sweeping gestures or, worse still, taking credit for the work and funding of other government sources rather than embracing real responsibility.”  

He went on to criticize Memphis leadership for public investment in Crosstown Concourse, a $200 million redevelopment project, while cutting Route 31, a Memphis Area Transit Authority route that connects North and South Memphis and services the Crosstown area.

This is while, he points out, the city continues to throw funds at the “boondoggle” that is the trolleys, prioritizing tourists over the city’s own citizens because of “vanity.”

Individuals in a world of systems

Also at work in the discussion was the role of individuals in contrast with systems, which can be both sources of injustice and agents for change.

Robinson challenged the audience to use their individual spheres of influence to make a difference, saying “the first conversation is with ourselves.”

Watkins suggested that change be thought of at the collective level so that organized communities can leverage power greater than their individual selves. At the present, however, Watkins says Memphians are “conditioned to ceding power to elected officials.”

Thomas also encouraged thinking critically about the systems and structures that perpetuate inequality and not to think of the issues in an individualistic way. 

Related: "Memphis pushes to level the playing field for black entrepreneurs"

“When we ask the wrong questions, we celebrate the wrong things,” she said.

Although often individuals are blamed for not voting or working, the poverty report shows how the sharp increase in the arrest and conviction of black men since the 1980s has led to increased unemployment due to discriminatory hiring practices against felons. This unemployment trend leads to child poverty for those without enough income to support their kids.

This same effect is true of voting rights. “It is not a coincidence that it’s difficult to vote if you’ve been through the criminal justice system,” Spickler noted.

Memphis in context

While many of these local trends mirror data at the federal level, Memphis suffers particularly in several areas.

Spickler said that Memphis incarcerates black people at nearly three times the national rate, “sweeping entire generations — especially of young, black men — into the criminal justice system.”

Nationally, recidivism is at over sixty percent. Spickler said that there are not many systems we allow to continue that fail sixty percent of the time. Spickler criticized disproportionate convictions of black people, especially in our juvenile courts and a culture of prosecution policies that reward conviction and severity of sentences for crimes that disproportionately affect black communities, implicitly or explicitly. 

“We have a prosecutor’s office that is facing ethics violations over and over again because of the culture of conviction and severity of sentences. We have law enforcement that sweeps young black kids into the system for minor offenses. We have a driver’s license framework in this state that makes it next to impossible to keep a driver’s license if you’re living in poverty where traffic stops are just a part of living [and fees aren’t able to be paid.]”

The panel discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum came just one day after Mayor Strickland defended his “tough on crime” policies after CNN analyst Angela Rye came to Memphis and delivered a speech critiquing the mayor at an I Am A Man Commemoration rally held February 24 at The Orpheum, sponsored by the city of Memphis.

"[Rye] criticized our efforts to seek stiffer sentences for violent crimes and felons in possession of guns, and to prosecute gun crimes in the federal system. Here in Memphis, though, citizens from every neighborhood are fed up with crime and tell me often how they want to punish those who commit violent acts,” Strickland said in a statement.

Although Delavega has been collecting this data since 2011, the approaching anniversary gave a special significance to the state of poverty and racial disparities in Memphis, which many of the panelists pointed out was the catalyst for Dr. King’s trip to Memphis leading up to that fateful day.

Thomas closed with this remark: “As we think about, ‘where do we go from here’ and coming up on the anniversary of King’s death, [I hope] that we really not squander his sacrifice, that we not make a mockery of the blood that was shed just feet from here.”

Spickler had a challenge for white Memphians. He quoted John T. Edge who said, “The correct response to privilege is not guilt, it’s duty,” he said, adding, “We have profited far too long from these systems that we learned about tonight.”

Read more articles by J. Dylan Sandifer.

J. Dylan Sandifer is a freelance writer living in Memphis since 2008. They have also contributed writing and research for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, VICE News, and Choose901. 
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