MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In a casual conversation in what was meant to welcome me to my new city, a white neighbor uncomfortably reminded me of the 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" in the neighborhood.
No code words were necessary. He 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. It has produced some of America's best-known and most talented musical giants, including the likes of B. B. King, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Elvis Presley and many more. Currently, the city is enjoying national attention via the epic playoff run of the Memphis Grizzlies. The thriving NBA franchise rolled into the city twelve years ago when many experts doubted the team would survive in a 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 also carries a negative stigma forever etched into 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 that the blues originated here 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 the tenth deadliest city in the nation. Since I arrived here, not a week has gone by when a young black male under the age of 25 has not been 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, and those young men are typecast as angry, overly violent, aggressive and a general menace to society.
That image pervades our thinking, informing our manufactured understanding that all black men are to be feared and are, thus, potential suspects in a police lineup. Inequality in society makes crime more likely as populations must find ways to cope with despair. Having few socially acceptable coping skills, 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, is that these circumstances are realities that create the conditions that give rise to crime and deviance and can fuel society's perceptions of crime that lead to unjust characterizations.
Crime and our perceptions of crime are functions of America's racial past and a capitalistic, individualistic society determined to empower property rights at the expense of 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 American society, which can be eliminated with good government policy.
Living in a society where citizens are conditioned to believe that being black and male is to be equated with crime is severely misguided, and out of context with centuries of brutal oppression. Public education, sadly, has helped maintain the romantic concept that white people made the nation and the 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. My neighbor was a product of that system — and it's a system that has to change.
(Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.)