I t often feels that if television news has its way, the assault by three of 11 teenagers on three people at a Kroger store in East Memphis will provoke all of us to put bars on our windows and vilify any African-American teenager in Memphis.
P ropelled by national extremist websites that spewed hate-filled commentaries that only occasionally touched on the facts, the incident has become the crucible for an outpouring of rage and anger, some that reflected the ugly underbelly of racism and others that stemmed from a sincere concern about the recent spike of violent crime.
More than anything, the video of the incident — and its endless replaying by the news media — proves the power of images in galvanizing public opinion. There is no spike in youth violence, but for many people, African-American teenagers have become the faces to fear in Memphis.
For eight of the youths that were arrested, it was decided theirs was largely a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they were delivered to Juvenile Court on charges of aggravated riot. Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, exercising Solomonic judgment, required them to complete 40 hours of community service, write letters of apologies to the three victims — two were Caucasian and one was African-American — and stay out of trouble, or their parents will have to pay the costs for the handful of days they were held there.
Meanwhile, the three people charged with aggravated assault were treated much differently. The 19-year-old is being held in Shelby County Jail awaiting trial, and Michael ordered the two teenagers to be transferred to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services for an indeterminate amount of time. That’s the full punishment allowed by state law.
The attack and the news coverage gave birth to a narrative that youths in Memphis are out of control. Overshadowed is the fact that youth crime is not up. When 2009 is compared to 2013, the number of charges against young people for Part I violent crimes dropped from 1,452 to 1,295. In 2012, 3,049 youths were detained in Juvenile Court, and a year later, there were 1,504.
At a public hearing in Whitehaven held in connection with city government’s five-year financial plan, the mother of a 16-year-old boy said: “I want to live in a city that works as hard to help my son succeed as it works to put him in jail.”
“I want to live in a city that works as hard to help my son succeed as it works to put him in jail.”
It was a statement that resonated with the people in the room, who said that neighborhood services like libraries, community centers, and parks are underfunded while the police budget continues to climb. Memphis Police Department budgets over the last 10 years totaled $2.1 billion, growing from $183 million in 2006 to $246.3 million today, all while the hours for libraries and community centers were reduced and parks’ improvements were left unfunded.
The benign neglect comes at a time when the Memphis region is number one nationally in the percentage of families headed by single parents, adults caring for grandchildren, and highest rate of child poverty. Within Memphis, 47,000 teenagers are 15 to 19 years old and many of them live in five zip codes where the poverty rate is more than 60 percent for 12- to 17-year-olds. Meanwhile, 60 percent of the jobs being created here are low wage, and the odds against moving from the bottom 20 percent to the top 20 percent are 20-1.
Facing these facts of life, the big news story isn’t that some youths commit crimes, but that more of them don’t. As an Urban Child Institute researcher said, with the risk factors facing Memphis children, it’s surprising that the negative indicators aren’t much higher.
Compared to most large cities, Memphis has a bulge in the percentage of the population that is younger than 18. In Memphis, it’s 26 percent, compared to Nashville’s 21.7 percent, which translates into about 32,000 more youths here. Many African-American teenagers say they live in a city that does not value them. The hundreds of replays of the Kroger video have certainly amplified that message to them.
And yet, they are in fact Memphis’ big opportunity. While other cities are fighting to attract talented young workers, ours are sitting in Memphis classrooms today. Success comes in moving them into the economic mainstream because it will largely determine Memphis’ future. That’s why it is hard to overstate the importance of school reforms and neighborhood improvement efforts that are under way, although we’re unlikely to see that progress on the nightly news.