Can It Happen Here?

It — Ferguson — can theoretically happen anywhere, obviously. But there are some structural differences between metro St. Louis and metro Nashville in the way local and satellite governments are configured that are important to understand. An insightful New York Times op-ed today by political scientist Jeff Smith (previously a Missouri state senator from St. Louis) explains some of the history behind the geographic and demographic configuration of inner suburbs in St. Louis — history that is quite different from ours here in middle Tennessee:

Back in 1876, the city of St. Louis made a fateful decision. Tired of providing services to the outlying areas, the city cordoned itself off, separating from St. Louis County. It’s a decision the city came to regret. Most Rust Belt cities have bled population since the 1960s, but few have been as badly damaged as St. Louis City, which since 1970 has lost almost as much of its population as Detroit.

This exodus has left a ring of mostly middle-class suburbs around an urban core plagued by entrenched poverty. White flight from the city mostly ended in the 1980s; since then, blacks have left the inner city for suburbs such as Ferguson in the area of St. Louis County known as North County.

This governmental fragmentation, Smith notes, translates into large numbers of small towns with independent police forces and too much reliance on traffic stops for revenue:

St. Louis County contains 90 municipalities, most with their own city hall and police force. Many rely on revenue generated from traffic tickets and related fines….Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent. Municipal reliance on revenue generated from traffic stops adds pressure to make more of them.

Ninety! And that’s in a county whose population outside of the city of St. Louis is roughly the same as Davidson County. As Smith explains, because the white-to-black shift in racial demographics in many of these suburbs has occurred only fairly recently, “fewer suburban black communities have deeply ingrained civic organizations,” which is part of how it comes to be that places like Ferguson have majority white power structures (city council, school board, police force) in majority black communities.

Smith sees a remedy, one that should sound vaguely familiar to Nashvillians: consolidation.

Consolidation would help strapped North County communities avoid using such a high percentage of their resources for expensive public safety overhead, such as fire trucks. It could also empower the black citizens of Ferguson. Blacks incrementally gained power in St. Louis City in part because its size facilitates broader coalitions and alliances. Another benefit of consolidation is the increased political talent pool. Many leaders just aren’t interested in running a tiny municipality….Consolidation could create economies of scale, increase borrowing capacity to expand economic opportunity, reduce economic pressures that inflame racial tension, and smash up the old boys’ network that has long ruled much of North County.

Obviously the kind of consolidation that might bring surburban communities together in 21st century St. Louis County doesn’t mimic the experience or the experiment Nashville and Davidson County launched 50 years ago. And certainly there are other factors that make St. Louis and Nashville very different places. But it is instructive during a period of searing civic tension in a metro area that in many ways qualifies as a peer city to think about structural similarities and differences when pondering the inevitable question: can it happen here?

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Questions for Marriage Equality Foes

A new poll last week showed a striking continuation of the dramatic shift in national public opinion toward broad acceptance of same-sex marriage. The trend is hard to miss:

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

This latest Post/ABC poll also finds that 61 percent favor allowing same-sex couples to adopt children, and 81 percent say businesses should not be allowed to refuse service to gays and lesbians. And there’s an accelerating body of judicial opinion to go with public opinion: In the wake of last summer’s Supreme Court ruling on DOMA we’ve seen federal judges striking down gay marriage bans in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah and Texas, along with state court rulings in New Jersey and Mexico.

Here in Tennessee, of course, a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage enacted in 2006 remains in effect, although a federal lawsuit of the sort that has worked in these other states is in process.

All of which raises the question: What is going through the minds of stalwart opponents of marriage equality as they digest these developments? The Family Action Council of Tennessee’s David Fowler is among those trying to stop the tide from coming in. Some questions for Mr. Fowler:

[1] Mr. Fowler, you are fond of reminding us that a very large majority of Tennessean voters “approved our constitutional definition of marriage” and that most still say that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Both of these things are true, but while geographic splits on same-sex marriage approval do show the South lagging other regions, it’s no longer a minority view even here, and it isn’t hard to fathom which way it’s trending. Do you look at the polling data, Mr. Fowler, and honestly convince yourself that this shift happening everywhere is not actually occurring here in Tennessee?

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

Source: Washington Post-ABC News poll

[2] You have written that if federal court decisions like the one in Ohio ultimately extend to Tennessee, “a conflict will immediately arise between what the federal government, through the courts, will require Tennessee to recognize as a marriage and what Tennesseans voted to recognize as a marriage.” Is your grasp of constitutional law and the Fourteenth Amendment so tenuous that you will regard federal court decisions striking down bans on same-sex marriage as inciting conflict between federal law and Tennessee voters? Do you believe, accordingly, that the 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia invalidating state laws prohibiting interracial marriage was wrongly decided?

[3] You wrote last summer that “if same-sex marriage advocates want equality, then the burden is on them to prove that a same-sex union is essentially the same as a heterosexual union in all regards. Otherwise, everyone knows that there is nothing ‘unequal’ or ‘unfair’ about treating two different things two different ways.” Do you really believe that threats to equal protection under the law are taken seriously only if those in a social category denied equal protection can prove that they are just like those whose rights are protected “in all regards”? So black people have to be able to prove they are like white people “in all regards”? Muslims have to be like Christians “in all regards”? Women have to be like men “in all regards”?

The fact is, Mr. Fowler, that you and your organization cling to a viewpoint support for which is rapidly deteriorating everywhere. Do you imagine that Tennessee will somehow defy the trend and become a heterosexual oasis of bigotry? You are free to believe these things, of course, but why not just admit publicly what you no doubt understand privately: that opposition to marriage equality almost certainly will not outlast judicial momentum toward a Supreme Court ruling that throws Tennessee’s constitutional ban under the bus of history.

So what’s your end game, Mr. Fowler? Will you help usher Tennessee into the 21st century by hopping on the bus now in a gesture of humility and humanity? Or do you choose to remain defiantly in its path, somehow imagining that everyone else is going to suddenly wake up from a Fourteenth Amendment nightmare and reclaim bigotry and discrimination as righteous paths to Tennessee’s glorious future?

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


At the State Capitol: More Religion! As Much as Possible!

churchstatestreetsIn their ongoing quest to ensure that religious expression is never far from center stage in Tennessee’s public schools, our elected guardians of spiritual zeal down at the state capitol (masquerading as the House Education Committee) today take up the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act (HB1547/SB1793). The measure, which could have been titled the “Make Schoolchildren Commingle With As Much Religion As Humanly Possible Act,” would require that local school boards adopt policies letting students express religious beliefs in all kinds of settings: assemblies, athletic events, pep rallies, graduation ceremonies, and even school day opening announcements. (“The Lord, who by the way frowns upon the idea of one world government, wants you to know that the Model U.N. Club will meet after school today in room 301.”)

Viewed as a whole, the bill comes off as a way to compel kids to listen to religious messages (which may well conflict with their own beliefs) in school as often as possible. But the especially pernicious part of HB1547 is its approach to classroom activities — you know, that pesky learnin’ stuff the schools are supposed to be doing between prayer meetings.

The bill incorporates a lengthy “model policy” that local school boards could adopt to come into compliance with its requirements. Here’s the full text of Article IV of that model policy, titled “Religious Expression and Prayer in Class Assignments” (emphasis added):

A student may express the student’s beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of the student’s submission. Homework and classroom work shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school. Students may not be penalized or rewarded on account of religious content. If a teacher’s assignment involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer (for example, a psalm) should be judged on the basis of academic standards, including literary quality, and not be penalized or rewarded on account of its religious content.

There is an obvious contradiction built in to those middle two sentences. On one hand, a teacher can judge a student’s work by “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance,” but on the other hand the teacher cannot penalize “on account of religious content.” So the student who incorporates creationist notions into an assignment on paleontology or developmental biology or cosmology is … what? Evaluated in a science class as scientifically incompetent, but then not penalized for it? What does that even mean?

This bill is clearly just the thing we need to beef up Tennessee’s national educational reputation. Hell, even the most notorious conservative interest group in America ranks us in the bottom 10 of states in its Report Card on American Education. And by the way, I can’t be penalized for that last sentence, since it did open with “hell,” which qualifies, of course, as “religious content.”

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


NSA In Perspective

Many on the left have spent the last few days processing the president’s speech last week on NSA reforms and trying to figure out if this is (finally) evidence that Obama is turning a corner on surveillance, security, and privacy. Good perspective on this comes, as usual, from Glenn Greenwald, writing last Friday in The Guardian:

And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards. “Individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress,” he gushed with an impressively straight face. “One thing I’m certain of, this debate will make us stronger,” he pronounced, while still seeking to imprison for decades the whistleblower who enabled that debate. The bottom line, he said, is this: “I believe we need a new approach.”

But those pretty rhetorical flourishes were accompanied by a series of plainly cosmetic “reforms”. By design, those proposals will do little more than maintain rigidly in place the very bulk surveillance systems that have sparked such controversy and anger.

GG does point to some positive developments: FISA court reform, less control over national security letters, distancing NSA from control of metadata, and the diminished inclination to spy on leaders of friendly nations. But on the whole it is sad but true that he can reach this justifiable conclusion: “Those who want genuine changes should not look to politicians, and certainly not to Barack Obama, to wait for it to be gifted.”


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