Wednesday, January 12, 2011

White Men in Suits

A simple way to understand a complicated story.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 12, 2011 at 10:46 AM

This schools deal is about white men in suits.

For a long time, white men in suits ran Memphis and Shelby County. Black people and women got their say, but white men in suits got their way. Now it is white men in suits who might get their say but not their way.

If you look at the schools as Custer's Last Stand or the Alamo for white men in suits, you will miss a few pearls and a few pains, but you will have a fairly good understanding of what is otherwise as inscrutable to laymen as curling, British Parliament, or inside baseball.

When I came to Memphis to work for The Commercial Appeal in 1982, white men in suits were still at the controls of the newspaper, network television, local government, Congress, and big business. The Internet and personal computers and the reign of Willie Herenton as mayor were a decade or more in the future.

At the CA, which would have an open field after the afternoon daily Memphis Press-Scimitar closed in 1983, the efforts to promote diversity were sometimes serious and effective and sometimes comical. The inner sanctum of white men in suits was the editorial-writing staff, led by the pipe-smoking editor, an elderly gentleman with a Harvard pin, and the late Norman Brewer, always a dapper volcano of reason and correct thought.

To this triumvirate was added, briefly, future syndicated columnist and author Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who thought for herself and hated being confined to an office. It didn't take, but it was, to me at least, a perfect example of the imperfect come-join-us thinking of white men in suits.

An era was ending. So it went for the next 25 years, as women and blacks ascended to jobs as CEOs, network news anchors, editors, mayors, senators, and president.

White men in suits still have a lot of clout. They run most big businesses and chambers of commerce. They have fortunes and can start foundations and influence public policy through their philanthropy. They are resurgent in the Tennessee General Assembly and many cities east of the Tennessee River. And they rule the Shelby County school system, which has a white male superintendent and six white male and one white female school board members.

Having meetings, letting cooler heads prevail, and appointing special committees are bedrock principles of white men in suits. For years, they ensured that they would get their way. Most of the people pushing the city and county school boards to slow down and talk out their differences instead of opting for a hostile surrender of the city schools charter are white men in suits — school board members David Pickler and Jeff Warren, Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken, state senator Mark Norris, Tennessee election coordinator Mark Goins, and Shelby County Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini, to name a few.

Of course, there are a lot of blacks and women in the slow-down camp too. There is no glass ceiling in Memphis City Schools, and the leaders of the Memphis Education Association are opposed to surrender. (A general membership meeting was held after our deadlines.) But the practical effect of letting the Shelby County school board and the Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly have their way with Shelby County Schools would be the perpetuation of the status quo.

Day by day, the slow-down measures look more desperate. There is a sense that history is being made, that something new and different and better can be forged in Memphis and Shelby County. Who wants to be on the wrong side of history? There is also a sense that we are in a canoe without a paddle heading for, if not a waterfall, at least some Class III rapids.

When legislatures meet and debate goes on too long, impatient members start to holler "vote." A sizable number of Memphians is hollering "vote." At a rally last week, the pro-surrender force included Shelby County commissioners Deidre Malone and Sidney Chism, MCS board members Tomeka Hart and Martavius Jones, state representatives G.A. Hardaway and Johnnie Turner, and Memphis City Council members Harold Collins and Shea Flinn (white and male but not in a suit).

A blast from the past, former school board member and NAACP leader Maxine Smith, joined them and said this to their opponents:

"They know we are right, and they know we are going to win."

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