The last several weeks of police killings and killings of police have shown us a picture of ourselves that is not flattering.
My vantage point now is Memphis, a city of pleasant and seemingly harmonious people (nicer folks by far than are found in New Jersey) that actually is not what the city or its people want it to be.
On the Sunday after five Dallas policemen were shot dead, 1,000 people here — most black, but also whites and Asians — gathered in downtown Memphis. From there, they moved onto the nearby Hernando de Soto Bridge, the freeway crossing to Arkansas.
Traffic on the interstate was shut down for five hours. The protesters were not violent, but they were adamant and unwilling to move. They wanted to talk to the head of police and the mayor.
The interim police director, a black man, told the mayor to stay at city hall, which the mayor did. Then the police director removed his protective vest and walked out into the crowd. He linked arms with members of the group and assured them that their concerns were being heard, a sentiment echoed later by the mayor and city council.
Together, the police director and a large number of the protesters walked back to town from the bridge. (Some of the protestors stayed longer.) There was no violence. There were no arrests. A series of community meetings has begun.
Meetings won’t hurt, but meetings may not bring a solution.
Civil Rights Museum
The protesters assembled originally in front of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. It is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot dead in 1968. King was on his second trip to the city in an effort to resolve a strike by the largely black trash haulers’ union that had left garbage uncollected for as long as a month.
I visited the museum recently. It is not easy to walk through the place, which consists mostly of displays of civil rights agitation and its often-violent suppression in the 1960s. The theme is African Americans claiming the right to eat at lunch counters, to sit where they wished on city buses, to travel with white people on interstate buses, to enroll in public schools and to register to vote.
The film of police and governors’ actions and statements shames even those who do not hail from the South. How could these injustices have endured for so long?
I hope we are better people today, and maybe we are. But there are signs all around that de facto segregation exists, even if it is no longer mandated by government forces.
This city has problems. Its population is 64 percent African American, and the local murder rate (9.9 per 100,000) is substantially higher than that of much-cited Chicago (5.5 per 100,000.) Almost all the dead are young black men shot by other young black men with handguns.
Local public schools can only generously be described as underperformers. Memphians of all races go to lengths to avoid enrolling their children. They seek out religious schools — Catholic, Protestant and Jewish — or move to distant suburbs. The people with the least money and the least mobility are stuck.
Memphis has a number of “public charter” schools. The most highly ranked one I could find (8 on a national 1-10 scale by the GreatSchools group) had a 96 percent black student body. In 2015, fewer than 50 percent of its fourth graders were reading at their grade level or higher.
Memphis neighborhoods tend to be mostly black, mostly white or transitioning between the two, perhaps because of individual preferences but striking all the same. The neighborhoods adjoin each other, and the incidence of property crime is high.
Among the African American population, the number of high earners has grown since the Great Recession, as has the number of poor people. Meanwhile, the middle-class cohort has declined significantly.
These issues are not unique to Memphis. Most urban populations are segregated by neighborhoods and cities. Public school districts nationwide have been highly resistant even to minor changes to deal with students as they come. Essentially, our schools have maintained a 1950s education model that isn’t working for 21st century students.
In Memphis, a city with low economic growth and few new jobs, these matters loom larger than they might do elsewhere.
Yes, African Americans have achieved the basic rights of citizenship. But the opportunities — for jobs and the kind of education that leads to good jobs — are not good in minority-majority cities. To be fair, such opportunities are limited in formerly stable blue-collar white cities.
This lack of opportunity partly explains why angry young black men take different paths, committing crimes at higher rates and attracting more police attention. But the police attention catches in its net the majority of African Americans who are law abiding and who understandably resent being hassled.
No wonder there is frustration.
We still have work to do.