I was driving down Vance Avenue after work a couple weeks ago, when I observed a cluster of junior high kids on the sidewalk. They were watching a fight between two girls, both of whom were using one hand to hold up their pants and the other to swing and grab at each other.
If there is a better metaphor for what’s holding back the poor black population in this city, I have yet to see it.
Tough guys in the movies used to say, “I could whip him with one hand tied behind my back.” These kids had voluntarily taken one hand out of service in order to sustain a dead-end cultural fashion statement. It’s not their fault. It’s what they know; it’s what they see all around them.
They are part of a huge monoculture of disenfranchised poor people, cut off from the tempering influence of middle- and upper-class whites and African Americans, totally unaware of how absurd they might appear to those outside their economic and cultural circle.
I was in New York all last week, walking the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. There were women in native Indian dress, Hasidic Jews, hipsters in black jeans, guys in dashikis, preppies, etc. I had cab drivers who were Sikh, Arab, white, African, and Chinese. It was a beautiful thing to see the easy and natural interaction between all kinds of folks in restaurants, corner groceries, and boutiques. Nobody — black, white, brown, or beige — was wearing their pants at thigh level. Not that it doesn’t exist, but it’s not the norm.
Last week, in our Viewpoint column, Michael LaRosa and Bryce Ashby suggested that Memphis needs to become a welcoming place for legal immigrants and that by increasing its diversity the city would become stronger economically and culturally. I agree.
Our population is shrinking. We have too many empty buildings and deserted neighborhoods. Those who attend our city schools are overwhelmingly poor and mostly black. The goal for schools used to be the “integration” of blacks and whites. It didn’t work. We got fresh segregation — between the poor and the not poor.
Memphis needs fresh blood, fresh thinking, and new ideas from people who don’t carry around the racial baggage of the old Memphis. We all need to sit down together and get past race and party affiliation and old wounds and figure out ways to revitalize and diversify our schools and our city.
And to do that, everybody’s going to need both hands.