If you live in one place for a long time, you tend to get cynical about it. At least that's been my experience, having lived in such disparate cities as Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., St. Louis, San Francisco, and Columbia, Missouri, over the past 30 years. Long-time residents of all those cities are convinced that their politicians are the crookedest, that their drivers are the worst, that their clerks are the rudest, etc.
Memphis is no different. To our huge native legion of cynics, we're "the most racist city;" our politicians are all greedy crooks, our crime problem is the worst in America, etc. etc. (Often, the folks making these remarks are the ones who proudly write letters to the paper about how they've "escaped" to Fayette or DeSoto or Tipton counties. I think they're just lonely out there.)
At any rate, I was reminded of our universal provincialism when I read this article, about how Atlanta, a majority black city, like Memphis, may elect a white mayor for the first time in many years. My first reaction was, HA! See, racial politics — just like Memphis. And, yes, the article does point out how some black leaders are calling on one black candidate to drop out, to help assure that the mayor's office stays in the hands of an African American. But what really struck me were the following paragraphs:
And while blacks have been the majority population and voting bloc in the city for decades, the demographics have changed in recent years.
A large voting bloc — residents in the city's public housing — was erased as Atlanta's crumbling projects were demolished over the past decade. And young professionals, black and white, have flocked to opportunity in the city.
In 2000, Atlanta was 33 percent white and 61 percent black. In 2007, the numbers were 38 percent white and 57 percent black, according to the U.S. Census.
In addition, blacks may no longer feel obligated to elect a black mayor, Boone said.
"You have a young generation of blacks — not native to Atlanta — who don't necessarily see that as something that has to happen," Boone said. "They may be staking their vote on matters more critical than race."
This information truly gives me hope. If Atlanta can finally get past racial politics, so can Memphis. If Atlanta can lure young professionals, black and white, back into the city, so can Memphis. If Atlanta can get beyond "racial-majority rules" politics, so can Memphis. Can't we?
Just as we look back and are appalled at the firehoses and bombings and injustices endured by those struggling for civil rights in the '60s, I think the next generation will look back and be appalled at the racial stupidity of the Herenton/ThaddeusMatthews/MikeFleming/SidneyChism/etc. era, when the struggle was all about which skin color gets to wield political power. It won't happen overnight, but Herenton's retirement — if the stars are with us — will at least help stem the unbridled cronyism and attendent cynicism of the past few years. Then, it would help if we could elect a mayor who would govern and hire solely on the basis of competence and the best interest of the electorate. After that, the sky's the limit.