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Why Race Still Matters in the Memphis Mayoral Election – Part 1: A Challenge of Words

In Part One of this story on how race factors into the Memphis mayoral election, we learn that different communities often interpret very different messages in some campaign rhetoric.

With the Memphis mayoral election now in the home stretch, the four candidates – Harold Collins, Jim Strickland, A.C. Wharton and Mike Williams -- are wrapping up their campaigns in advance of next week’s voting on Oct. 8.

They have all campaigned heavily on issues of social reform. All the major debates and nearly every forum have included proposals or strategies to tackle the city’s two biggest institutional problems: crime and poverty.

But some political observers have noted that in a city that is still, in many ways, segregated by race and economic status, there have been few specific mentions of the role that race plays in social reforms, even though voters often make inferences about race based on campaign language.

Wendi C. Thomas, columnist for the Memphis Flyer and 2016 Niemen fellow at Harvard University, says that it’s still a touchy subject with many voters.

“People are hardwired to avoid discomfort,” Thomas says. “So I think we don’t talk about race because it’s uncomfortable.”

Thomas says that racial biases are still expressed even when they’re unspoken. She points to a Sept. 4 Commercial Appeal pollshowing that black voters overwhelmingly chose black mayoral candidates, while white voters flocked to the sole white candidate.

“Someone needs to be talking about that,” she says. “If this is supposed to be one Memphis, how are these numbers so divided?”

Minority candidates, she says, are likely to downplay race in a close election to make white voters more comfortable.

But that concerns Terri Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum. She says that, far from not thinking about race, voters are instead listening carefully to the language of every campaign.

Freeman moved here ten months ago from Washington DC. She was struck by the frequent use of the term “blight.”

“It’s a term that I hear every day,” she says. “And what it suggests is not that there’s a vacant lot with some empty bottles on it. It talks about an entire community and it then seeps into how we talk about the people in    the community.”

Those same people are especially tuned into this year’s biggest talking point: crime.

Thomas says that a hard tone – particularly rhetoric like “zero tolerance” for youthful offenders -- makes some people bristle. She says that many people who have to deal with the justice system also know of its institutional unfairness.

For example, black juvenile offenders in Shelby County are already twice as likely as whites to be tried in adult courts.

Mayoral candidate and city council member Harold Collins says that a Memphis mayor has to take this biased system into account. Young people should be held accountable for their crimes, he says, but there should be “meaningful instruction on the back end.” Which is to say: social programs to rehabilitate bad behavior rather than just punish it.

Mayor AC Wharton says that he and other minority candidates could sound softer on crime to some ears because they are speaking across communities with very different impressions of law enforcement.

“You have to be careful of the tone,” Wharton says. “You know, when we sit here and state so cavalierly, ‘we’re gonna have to get tough, that’s what we’re gonna have to do,’ that’s perceived by those who are living on the other side of the society as ‘here comes the military, here comes the gestapo, coming in to bust heads.’ You can get away with that for a while, but it will be bottled up and when the right spark comes along, that gasoline bottle explodes.”  

Wharton and Collins (Strickland and Williams did not appear for scheduled interviews, and did not respond to follow up e-mail requests) have both thought about the social unrests stemming from police interactions in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md. Collins hopes that a Memphis protest would be peaceful, because his administration would be listening. His response to the city:  

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are blessed that we haven’t had an incident like this, and the reason we haven’t had it is because we are mature enough to understand the consequences that would follow.”

Freeman says that the next mayor of Memphis should already be speaking about the root causes that lead to conflict.

“You can’t deal with these issues only when they arise,” she says. “You have to have some history with the community.”

For Wharton, that means: “It’s not what you do after (a crisis). It’s what’s you do before.”

Continue to Part Two: Jobs Good, Wealth Better.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.