By Chris Peck
January 7, 2007
Picture Census numbers say by 2010 or soon there after Greater Memphis is on track to become America’s first large metropolitan area with a majority African-American population.
That headline on the front page of The Commercial Appeal on the last day of 2006 sets the stage — and the challenge — for a next generation of African-American leadership.
In Greater Memphis, it’s going to be your show.
Sure, the region will continue to have both black and white elected officials and leaders of nongovernmental organizations.
But in the years ahead, more and more boards, commissions and councils at every level of public life will reflect the needs, desires and perspectives of the black majority.
That’s the way it should be. Local governance and local decisions need to reflect the local populace.
This consolidation of political power and decision making within the African-American majority poses some new challenges, too.
For example, it will become less easy for African-American politicians to claim that racism and white leadership are the cause of problems faced by the region’s vast underclass — which is largely African-American.
In 10 years will a black Shelby County commissioner be able to say, as Henri Brooks did a few days ago, that Shelby County’s Juvenile Court is akin to a “plantation”?
Already, the Juvenile Court staff is 75 percent African-American. True, the higher-paying jobs of court administration currently are about 72 percent white, but in a decade that likely won’t be the case. Not if the pool of applicants with acceptable qualifications mirrors the shift to a majority African-American populace.
The point isn’t to suggest that Greater Memphis has erased, or will erase, all vestiges of discrimination and unequal opportunity in the workplace or civic life.
Nor would it be prudent to suggest economic and educational disparities between black and white households will disappear because African-Americans suddenly have the majority.
But these disparities will not be, if you will, as black-and-white as they once were.
Research by The Commercial Appeal recently showed, for example, that middle-class African-American household growth now exceeds middle-class white household growth in the region.
This is very good news.
And look at the business pages. Rarely does a week pass without the announcement that a local company or institution has recruited African-American managers and leaders from other parts of the country to work in Memphis.
All this bodes well for the future leadership of the region.
At the same time, as African-Americans take on more leadership roles in the region’s political and social institutions, they must assume more accountability. No excuses allowed for graft, corruption or incompetence.
That’s the other side of being in the driver’s seat. When you have the political power and the ability to set the civic agenda, with that authority comes a big load of responsibility for making things work — in the schools, law enforcement, volunteer agencies, and in business.
A recent news story related to the Memphis Police Department helps underscore the changing responsibility that comes with being in the majority.
Last week, the Memphis City Council decided to junk a requirement that all new police recruits must live within the city limits.
This was right on. Such a residency requirement, designed to ensure a diverse police force and perhaps to give urban black males a leg up in recruiting, isn’t needed when a majority of the population is black. In fact, such a requirement might well reinforce the idea that the black majority can’t fill jobs and needs an extra advantage.
That’s the old world order. In the new world of being an African-American majority metro area, the larger issue that the majority populace — and the white minority, for that matter — cares about is getting the job done. In a majority black metro area, it can’t be about where the officers live, but rather must be about making sure the police department is finding candidates who have the temperament, intelligence and desire to do the job of fighting crime and keeping neighborhoods safe.
So here is the opportunity for Greater Memphis.
We are about to become the first large metropolitan area with a majority African-American population. That hasn’t happened ever in America before.
If we become the model of a well-managed, safe and prosperous city, then we, and the nation, won’t be talking about race in the way that we have so often spoken about it in the past.
Chris Peck is editor of The Commercial Appeal. Contact him at 529-2390 or send an e-mail.
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