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“You have to get out of that neighborhood if you want decent children”

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I have news for everyone. There are other things happening in the world than the presidential campaign. Perhaps we should pay attention to them. For instance, there is the long-term issue of racism and housing that continues to impoverish African-Americans today. This is an outstanding lengthy discussion of the connections between race, housing, and inequality in Memphis. It explores the growth of the early 20th century black middle class when Memphis was one of the nation’s leading cities and how that was utterly destroyed by the city’s racist political machine when alliances with black politicians were no longer needed. This set off a long history of violence, white flight, and urban blight led by racist politicians and residents that has left Memphis in the dust of other southern cities economically, has created a huge geographical city with a stagnant population, and condemned African-Americans in Memphis today to long-term structural inequality. An excerpt:

White flight intensified the geography of disparity. Beginning in the 1950s, working-class whites moved just beyond the city’s boundaries, first north to Frayser and south to Whitehaven, and then “out East” to Germantown, Collierville, and Cordova, where they built roads, schools, shopping centers, and hospitals — all the features of a city, spread over small rural communities. The completion of the I-240 freeway loop, in 1984, directed commerce away from the urban core of Memphis and toward the suburbs. Today, the highest concentrations of wealth, educational attainment, and jobs are on the eastern edge.

n an ongoing effort to recapture its lost revenue base, Memphis has annexed this ever-expanding crabgrass frontier so that it can collect property taxes from white flighters. Over time, the city has grown to a sprawling 324 square miles, larger than New York City, Atlanta, or St. Louis, without increasing its population of 650,000. Now the city government is responsible for providing services to that vast area, and yet the county roll shows that a third of the land — 95 square miles — is essentially vacant, and much more is sparsely populated. In several cases the city gambled badly, annexing planned developments that never materialized, and now its diminished resources are spread thin across an ever larger territory, much of which generates no revenue.

In modern Memphis there is no figurehead, no Henry Loeb or Boss Crump, to articulate and symbolize the tenets of white supremacy. In fact, one result of white flight and black population growth has been the ascent of African-American political leadership. In 1974, Harold Ford, Sr., won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the state’s first black congressman. In 1991, former school superintendent Dr. Willie Herenton became the city’s first African-American mayor, an office he held for five terms. But the election of black leaders has done nothing to end racial division in Memphis — today, white opposition is expressed in continual growth beyond the city. In suburban malls and parks, you hear the loud echo of those nice white ladies in the mayor’s office in 1953: “You have to get out of that neighborhood if you want decent children.”

The racial prejudice of many suburbanites is revealed by their hostility to integrated public schools. Over the years, proposals to merge the government of surrounding Shelby County with the city government never gained much traction — but when county and city schools were finally merged, in 2011, that sparked a new segregationist revolt. Within two years, six suburban municipalities withdrew from the consolidated system and established their own schools (with a huge assist from the state legislature, which changed a law that had prohibited new school districts), and now those suburban districts no longer need to share their resources with the city. Urban residents nonetheless pay both city and county property taxes, benefiting the communities that have withdrawn their resources from Memphis.

This is well worth your time.

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