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Why Race Still Matters in the Memphis Mayoral Election -- Part 2: Jobs Good, Wealth Better

In Part II of this story on how race affects the campaigns of the 2015 Memphis mayoral election, WKNO asks how the city should help build black wealth – not merely lure more jobs.


Two weeks ago, new figures from the census bureau put the Memphis poverty rate at 29.8 percent, up two percent from 2013. That translates to about 191,000 Memphians living on less than $12,000 a year or $24,000 for a family of four.

With the mayoral election just around the corner (Oct. 8), the four candidates – Harold Collins, Jim Strickland, A.C. Wharton and Mike Williams -- have all talked in depth about job growth.

But less prominent in the rhetoric is the fact that the people needing those jobs – the nearly 85 percent of those living in poverty -- are also people of color.

Race and poverty in Memphis are closely connected, and as we learned in part one of this story, race is an uncomfortable conversation for some voters.

Roby S. Williams, president of the Black Business Association of Memphis, says the campaigns have given voters a simplified overview of poverty.

“It’s kind of like writing a newspaper article at an eighth grade level so people can understand, if that makes sense,” Williams said.

But deeper questions remain. Here’s a big one: How much of the city’s economic initiatives should focus on minority businesses? For Williams, the wrongs of history are reflected in today’s numbers.

African-Americans are the majority in Memphis, yet own only 38 percent of the city’s 52,000 businesses. Williams says that these minority businesses combined (nearly all of them are sole proprietors) earn just a fraction of one percent of the total revenue.

“Do those numbers click in your head?” Williams asks. “Going forward, if we are going to be a community of peace, having Caucasians who are doing well and African-Americans who are doing very, very poorly, and there are 63 percent African-Americans, that’s just not a formula for a safe and viable community.”

Most experts agree that the key to a more equitable city is not just jobs for African-Americans, but wealth – property, investments, possibly a company that can be passed down from parents to children. Lack of financial resources has stifled black entrepreneurship for generations.

“Too often African-Americans in Memphis and across the country are trying to practice capitalism without capital,” Williams says. “And to do that all you’ve got is ‘–ism.’”

While all four mayoral candidates have touted plans to lure new jobs to Memphis, we wondered what a city should do to foster wealth equality. Councilman Harold Collins and Mayor A.C. Wharton sat down with us for interviews. (Strickland and Williams declined to participate.)

For Wharton, progress could look something like an emergency fund for struggling black businesses.

“We have to make certain that there is readily available and sustainable source of cash resources --  capital, if you will,” Wharton says. “And that’s one of the things we’re going to work on.”

But government contracts are still the city’s main tool for helping minority businesses. To Collins, that system has problems.

“Black businesses are put under so much scrutiny that they are not able to meet the requirements sometimes that their white business counterparts are,” Collins says.

Collins sees the mayor’s job as uniquely positioned to promote black business growth.

This mayor is the sole contracting officer for the city of Memphis,” he says. “And the number is 38 percent participation. But you have to take the necessary steps to go locate (black businesses).”

With more than $500 million in recent building projects in the downtown area alone, the city’s construction contracts and deals with private firms represent one of the biggest opportunities for black business owners to make economic headway.

But as Roby Williams points out, adding racial stipulations to contracts could have negative side effects.

“If I’m in New York and I am considering moving locations – (choosing between) building a facility here, or building it in Mississippi – I would build it in Mississippi, in DeSoto County,” he says. “If I don’t have to go into ‘Okay, how many black folks you gonna hire? How many black folks you gonna use as vendors?”

Ideally, Williams says, the best solution is a social one. The white and black business communities should be working together so that diversity is already in place when outside companies are looking to build.

“Boom, we’re in a better position to win the site,” Williams says.

But for politicians -- as well as the black business community of Memphis -- fixing those social problems will take more than just layers of bureaucracy.  

Williams says: “Bottom line is this: Everything, everything, everything rises or falls on leadership.”

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.