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Murder, Mayhem and Memphis: Lessons From My White Neighbor About Blacks

05/22/2013 04:31 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2013

In a casual conversation in what was meant to welcome me to my new city, a white neighbor uncomfortably reminded of me the aversive racial challenges that remain very much intact in the South between white folk and people of color when he candidly referenced the degree of crime in the city as being the province of the ignorant, uneducated and low income "blacks." No code words were necessary in his conversation. He even expressed concern regarding the racial "Other" moving into the white-dominated communities, causing a shifting of geography ("white flight") within the city and surrounding areas of Memphis. (Amazingly, he openly discussed these issues with me, as he conveyed that I was an exception to other blacks he encounters on a day-to-day basis.)

Memphis is known for many things including its rich cultural traditions of blackness, producing some of Americas most well-known and talented musical giants from the likes of B.B. King, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Elvis Presley and many more. And currently the city is enjoying national attention regarding the epic playoff run of the Memphis Grizzlies. The thriving NBA franchise rolled into the city 12 years ago when many experts doubted the team would survive in smaller and lower-income market. Yet presently, the Grizzlies are the toast of the town. While these aspects draw positive attention to the city, Memphis, likewise, carries a negative stigma forever etched in the memories of many Americans as the place where Dr. King was murdered in 1968. With a legacy of both triumph and tragedy instilled within the heart of the city, deep racial divisions and stark inequalities remain a major staple of life in the home of the blues. Given its history of chattel slavery and centuries-old marginalization of large numbers of black folk in education, employment, healthcare and other institutions, it is understandable where these blues originated in the first place. To this day, black and white Memphians rarely mix and mingle beyond the niceties of the workplace. Instead, mayhem belies the positive aspects of the city and perception follows.

Memphis is ranked as one of the most deadliest cities in the nation. Since I arrived to the city, there has not been a week gone by when a young black male under the age of 25 was not injured or killed as a result of interpersonal conflict within predominately black spaces and, subsequently, reported on the nightly news. The face of crime is young, black and male whose typecast as angry, overly violent, aggressive and a general menace to society pervade our thinking, informing our manufactured understanding that all black men are to be feared and are, thus, potential suspects in a police line up. Inequality in society makes crime more likely as populations must find ways to cope with despair. Having few socially acceptable coping skills, many black men often lash out, defending what little they may possess in the form of manhood and pride. What my neighbor failed to realize, like most white Americans (and bright Americans for that matter), are the conditions that give rise to crime and deviance and to society's perceptions of it.

Crime and our perceptions of crime are functions of America's racist past and a capitalistic, individualistic value system determined to empower property rights at the expense of the people. Young black men are caught in a cycle of inter-generational poverty, despondency and a general lack of trust. Social isolation (not having significant friends or family that one can rely on), low-income status and early childhood trauma (in utero or out) are the conditions that produce crime and deviancy within US society, which can be eliminated with good government policy. It is, therefore, in the nation's best interest to invest in early childhood education as well as to decrease the unemployment rate by raising the minimum wage to a sufficient income to support a family. One way to accomplish this is to invest in this nation's crumbling infrastructure, which will simultaneously stimulate jobs and beautify the nation. This is done by putting people at the center of analysis for the overall public good, which will not only help those at the bottom, but will lift the American cities across the board.

Living in a society where citizens are conditioned to believe that being black and male is synonymous with crime is severely misguided, out of context to centuries of brutal oppression recorded in history. Public education demystifies the curriculum in ways that maintain the romantic concept that white people made the nation and world what it is today (i.e., capitalism, democracy, freedom, individual merit) while other groups, people of color and women, were passive onlookers on the sidelines -- there to either cause trouble or block the completion of white, masculinist, patriarchal domination. Abject inequality and uneven development in U.S. society hastens the burden of human stress in our bodies in counterproductive ways. Our mental and physical well-being is not solely the domain of the individual health behaviors. Governments and policy-makers must enact legislation which works in the best interest of people, empowering them with a strong education, good health, and most importantly, hope rather than lending themselves to the idolatry of lobbyist and special interest groups. People must be made to feel and they matter in the world beyond empty rhetoric, strengthened through robust policies that empower folk toward a less stressed, healthier, and ultimately, safer society.