Sep 03 2016

Redlining Memphis

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Financial Crisis, Racism

Last week, NPR aired a report about the way one Mid-South Bank has been using discriminatory lending practices against African American borrowers.

The finding against Bancorp South by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was published on June 29th of this year.

The fact that this news slipped by is unsettling. The only local news outlet that picked up the story is this stub from the Memphis Daily News. That’s pretty pathetic news people.

In its report, the CFPB detailed how it used forensic accounting and a “mystery shopper” technique to find a pattern of disparate lending practices against African American borrowers. The Mystery Shoppers, some white, and some black, sought out home loans in similar areas with similar credit backgrounds, but were offered very different loan packages based on race.

This practice is known as redlining.

Redlining: the practice of denying services, either directly or through selectively raising prices, to residents of certain areas based on the racial or ethnic makeups of those areas.

A Continuing Pattern

This isn’t the first time Memphis has been faced with a financial institution seeking to load up black borrowers with high cost debt products. As recently as 2009, the City of Memphis and Shelby County sued and reached a settlement with Wells Fargo Bank for similar practices in the run up to the mortgage crisis that tanked the whole damn economy and devastated Memphis’ tax base for years.

In researching the settlement, I found the original 2009 complaint, that lays out the City and County’s claims against the bank. I also discovered this complaint, made by the Los Angeles School District in 2014.

One interesting tidbit buried on page 47 of the document, was the Bank’s policy of using African American churches to promote “wealth building” with the specific purpose of delivering sub-prime loans to these congregations of color. In short, the bank went to places of trust in the African American community, to use it as a means to illegally profit.

Redlining Defines the Memphis Landscape

For decades there has been a practice of redlining in Memphis…and that practice isn’t just about purchasing homes.

Redlining can include the removal of critical services like banks, supermarkets, healthcare and more from minority areas of the city. Often times the removal of these community anchors are justified as “business decisions”, but based on Memphis’ long and complicated history of depriving African Americans equality on so many levels (from education, to healthcare, to economic opportunity), it is difficult to look at the prevalence of food deserts, banking deserts, and healthcare deserts, and not conclude that this is more than a coincidence.

In the absence of these institutions, other businesses, like check cashing establishments, have taken over the landscape, often charging huge fees for fairly mundane financial transactions.

The additional fees these business charge would not make it in the marketplace but for the absence of more reputable financial service providers. They use this scarcity to capture large percentages of working poor wages in high and unnecessary fees while returning little, if anything of value to the community at large.

Life Beyond the (Red)Lines

Bancorp South paid a pittance ($10m) and accepted no blame for their role in passing off high-cost loans to black customers who qualified for better deals. The fine amounts to less than .1% of the bank’s total assets and just over 1% of their annual revenue. The company’s stock dropped on the news, but has since recovered and then some.

I applaud the efforts of the CFPB, but I also recognize that their finding is just the tip of the iceberg…and the fine they imposed is but a fraction of the economic damage to black loan-seekers that has been inflicted.

I’m not foolish enough to believe that Bancorp South is the only bad actor here. Businesses adopt business practices out of imitation, not innovation.

That imitation is easy to see from the scores of closed bank branches in traditionally black communities to the food deserts that leave neighborhoods with options that cost both more and provide less. And all of that is the definition of redlining.

Memphis can’t live like this. We can’t build up our neighborhoods without these kind of community anchors. We can’t expect people to thrive when they’re expected to do more with fewer options…most of which cost more.

City, County and State government have a direct interest in maintaining community anchors. Their loss means lost revenue in the form of property, business and sales taxes. But aside from talk, neither the City, County, nor State government has done anything of any substance to reverse the trend over the past 30 years. If anything, through sprawl inducing land-use policies and blind-eye rubber-stamping, all have made the problem worse.

So while the fine against Bancorp South is a small victory, there’s still a lot of war on many fronts left to be fought. Because while businesses may get busted every once in a while for adopting racist policies, our local and state governments have been been complicit. That complicity has appeared in the loss of businesses, schools, parks and other anchors that are vital to the vitality of neighborhoods. Their loss represents a kind of government sanctioned redlining that often flies under the radar and sometimes takes decades to notice.

Aug 20 2016

What Now? – SCDP Edition part ∞

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, SCDP

tracedlogo1As you’ve probably read by now, the Shelby County Democratic Party has been decertified by the State Democratic Party. The County party organization, which has been a hot mess for nearly al of the 12 years that I’ve lived in Memphis, never truly distinguished itself as a force for anything but highlighting how not to run a political organization.

That’s not to say the SCDP has never done anything right. I think the 2012 County election was perhaps the most organized the party has ever been. It was a rare bright spot in an otherwise undistinguished resume. But since then, and in many cases, before then, the party has devolved into a series of pissing contests with a few actors who clearly put their personal interests above maintaining and growing an “organization”.

It would be easy to put this situation on one individual or one instance, but the truth of the matter is, the party has needed an organizational enema for some time. Its only now that things have devolved to the point the state party has enough justification to do so.

So what’s going to happen now? Well, details are sketchy. What I’ve been able to glean from a few conversations is that a group of local leaders (read elected Democrats and some activists(?)) will be looking at everything from the organizations bylaws and rules, to internal controls and all the other stuff that it takes to make any organization work…with an eye to have this thing turned around in time for the normal re-organization in March.

Since the party is doing some soul searching, I thought it might be a good idea to look at some of the things a local party should be doing and maybe a few structural things that would help keep this from ever happening again.


The first words of the County Party’s bylaws read as follows:

We, the Democrats of Shelby County, Tennessee, convened in Memphis in October of 1978, to organize the Democratic Party of Shelby County, Tennessee. The purpose of this Organization is to encourage the citizens of Shelby County to support Democratic Party candidates for election to public office, to encourage participation in Party affairs by every citizen who shares our ideals, and to maintain a strong, active and continuing organization dedicated to the principles of racial and sexual equality, individual liberty and economic justice for which our Party proudly stands.

You see these kinds of mission statements attached to all kinds of organizations. In theory, the rest of the document would go about explaining how this mission would be achieved (through committees, organization and activation). But the simple truth is while these ideological goals are full of virtue, they miss the point of a political organization: to activate people of a like mind through organization, information, training and fundraising.

The SCDP has only marginally been able to do one of these four things: fundraise. The result has been no push to activate the public to a common cause, because the party can’t agree on a common cause except for maintaining itself in its former disheveled condition. Part of that goes to leadership, which has been suspect at best over the years. Part of it goes to a sense that the SCDP Executive Committee “is” the party, rather than elected representatives “of” the party. That structural, intellectual, and psychological misunderstanding is at the core of the party’s woes.

Elected Representatives

Currently, to become a member of the SCDP Executive Committee you must have been nominated and elected by your peers in your State House District at the bi-annual reorganization meeting.

What’s always been striking to me is that these elected representatives rarely, if ever, reach out beyond the auspices of the Executive Committee to engage and activate the rank and file Democrats in their districts. This is borne out in pitiful turnout numbers in previous County elections, which has led to massive defeats.

Getting elected isn’t the end, its the beginning.

Since 2008 we have had the ability to identify Democratic voters in Shelby County. In 2010, I and several others encouraged the Party to begin using that resource to reach out to Democratic voters through their Executive Committee members. But a series of distractions and a lack of an effective training regime for members put that effort on hold.

If the SCDP Executive Committee is to ever become an effective force for good in this county, this kind of outreach must be at the core of its mission.

Process and Procedure

Like most things, organizations cannot survive in a vacuum. Organizations need written rules to fill the void and ensure they don’t get lost in the vastness of space. The SCDP Executive Committee has never had or distributed any written rules outside of the bylaws (which is akin to the Party’s Constitution).

Can you imagine how messed up this country would be if there were no law other than the Constitution? There would be no process to prosecute crime, no way to ensure ownership of property, no rules other than this founding document, and the subsequent amendments?

The Bylaws, like the US Constitution, are supposed to be a means to guide the heart, soul, and provide a framework to inform the rules of the the party. They cannot be the only rules.

Many will argue that the party rules are Robert’s Rules of Order. While this set of processes and procedures may be a fine starting point for managing meetings, it doesn’t address processes for internal controls, like auditing financials. The lack of these kinds of controls is part of what led the SCDP to the place it is today.

What’s more, Robert’s Rules are complicated. Earlier this year, a group of #NeverTrump organizers in the GOP sought to change the rules of the GOP convention to Robert’s Rules. The meeting has customarily used the rules of the US House of Representatives for its meetings. That move was rejected.

Why? Because Robert’s Rules, while comprehensive, are so complicated that there would have been a ton of ways to obstruct the proceedings…and while that might have been must see TV for folks who would take much joy in the RNC’s inability to get anything done, as someone who’s lived it with the SCDP, I can tell you its not much fun.

Nearly every deliberative body has some abbreviated set of rules for procedure (making motions, resolutions, and what to do with those when they are properly, or improperly made). Those rules also detail everything from internal controls to discipline. Any effort to rewrite the SCDP Executive Committee bylaws should also include a set of model rules to be adopted based on one of the many legislative rule sets out there (The Memphis City Council, Shelby county Commission, TN House, and TN Senate all have their own legislative rules, based loosely on the ideas set forth in Robert’s Rules of Order and governing law).

Idle Hands are the devil’s workshop

The most important role of the SCDP Executive Committee that has never been realized, is to facilitate the building of future leaders of the County.

There are a lot of reasons this has never happened. Some people, both inside and outside the Committee, see this kind of effort as a threat to their authority. The guiding notion here is that if there’s no one strong enough to challenge them, their position is safe.

But building leaders isn’t merely about challenging prevailing power. It can also support it and facilitate its evolution in a rapidly changing world.

This promotes relevance, and ensures that everyone is at the top of their game. I can’t think of a place that needs this more than Shelby County.

Unfortunately, the organizational knowledge of the party has atrophied to the point of nonexistence. There has been no effort to mentor future leaders. There has been no training to inform activists of new organizing tools. There has been no awareness of policy to activate members of important changes here at the local, state, or national levels.

This inactivity has allowed individuals to retreat to their respective corners for their own purposes, and ultimately, erect roadblocks to any activity. The lack of clear, realizable goals has forced those who would seek leadership positions in the community to seek out other vehicles to reach those positions of leadership. And in the process, it has degraded the party’s ability to nurture this talent, further marginalizing the party structure.

It is my hope that whatever comes of this process will include a set of achievable goals for the party, as well as support from the State party organization to help realize those goals.


There’s a lot more I could say about this, but in the absence of details about how this process will work, I’m loathe to go there.

I hope that the state party will clearly and carefully detail the process forward, and include people who are not currently part of the state party structure. I believe this is the only way to achieve the kind of buy-in from folks here in Shelby County to make this process successful.

I also hope that this will be a transparent process. The activities of the party have been extremely opaque, despite efforts by some to open up the process and activate interested parties outside of the Executive Committee.

At this point I’m cautiously optimistic about the endeavor…even though I know it is fraught with potential problems.

No one person led the SCDP to this point. It will take a lot of work from people both inside and outside the party structure to make the SCDP something more than the bucket of dysfunction that has been a feature of the organization up till now.

I hope it works.

May 27 2016


Posted by Steve Ross in Puke



I’m a sports fan. But I don’t talk about it much. I may have an opinion on what a coach does, but quite frankly, I usually don’t have enough of a foundation in sports to feel confident talking about it.

I understand this doesn’t stop most people.

So yesterday on the Gary Parrish show I heard his opening monologue about the horrific report detailing the attempts of some Baylor University Football officials to quash complaints of sexual assault against Baylor players.

As a person, I’m disgusted. As the father of a child who will one day go to college, I’m terrified.

I’m terrified because the willful neglect demonstrated by members of the Baylor Football staff, to women with complaints of sexual assault, makes me fearful that, one day, God forbid, if something should happen to my daughter, will there be some Bike Coach short wearing douchebag trying to talk her out of reporting it.

I’m angry because these people, regardless of their official duties, are supposed to help create and maintain an environment of education…not just cover their asses.

I’m sad for the women who were further victimized in this attempt to protect a few men who may have done something awful (we’ll never know if they’re guilty or innocent, though by the actions of the Baylor Football staff, they certainly don’t look innocent).

And it makes me wonder: How can a mom or dad send their kid off to school without knowing how that school deals with sexual assault or domestic violence?

How can parents be sure that a school will hold their child’s best interest over the best interest of the multi-million dollar enterprise that college sports has become?

Will parents start considering a school’s record on dealing with these kinds of issues when they’re discussing with their child what school they are interested in attending?

Because, while I’m not one of those that thinks there’s a boogey man around every corner trying to get you, I know that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes in the US. And that my child has a 1 in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted while she is in college.

And as a parent, that’s terrifying. Its more terrifying that employees of a major University in this country would ignore these realities (because statistics aren’t theoretical) for their own personal gain.

There were a lot of failings here, but the following paragraphs in the summary report really caught my eye.

Baylor failed to take appropriate action to respond to reports of sexual assault and dating violence reportedly committed by football players. The choices made by football staff and athletics leadership, in some instances, posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University. In certain instances, including reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, athletics and football personnel affirmatively chose not to report sexual violence and dating violence to an appropriate administrator outside of athletics. In those instances, football coaches or staff met directly with a complainant and/or a parent of a complainant and did not report the misconduct. As a result, no action was taken to support complainants, fairly and impartially evaluate the conduct under Title IX, address identified cultural concerns within the football program, or protect campus safety once aware of a potential pattern of sexual violence by multiple football players.

In addition, some football coaches and staff took improper steps in response to disclosures of sexual assault or dating violence that precluded the University from fulfilling its legal obligations. Football staff conducted their own untrained internal inquiries, outside of policy, which improperly discredited complainants and denied them the right to a fair, impartial and informed investigation, interim measures or processes promised under University policy. In some cases, internal steps gave the illusion of responsiveness to complainants but failed to provide a meaningful institutional response under Title IX. Further, because reports were not shared outside of athletics, the University missed critical opportunities to impose appropriate disciplinary action that would have removed offenders from campus and possibly precluded future acts of sexual violence against Baylor students. In some instances, the football program dismissed players for unspecified team violations and assisted them in transferring to other schools. As a result, some football coaches and staff abdicated responsibilities under Title IX and Clery; to student welfare; to the health and safety of complainants; and to Baylor’s institutional values.

In addition to the failures related to sexual assault and dating violence, individuals within the football program actively sought to maintain internal control over discipline for other forms of misconduct. Athletics personnel failed to recognize the conflict of interest in roles and risk to campus safety by insulating athletes from student conduct processes. Football coaches and staff took affirmative steps to maintain internal control over discipline of players and to actively divert cases from the student conduct or criminal processes. In some cases, football coaches and staff had inappropriate involvement in disciplinary and criminal matters or engaged in improper conduct that reinforced an overall perception that football was above the rules, and that there was no culture of accountability for misconduct. Source

May 26 2016

On #RecallKemp

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, City of Memphis, elections

Kemp Conrad

Kemp Conrad

Last week the Commercial Appeal reported on an effort to recall City Council Chairman, Kemp Conrad.

The announcement of the petition, which can be found here, lists some of the dismissive things Chairman Conrad has said about activists seeking to protect the Greensward in Overton Park.

As a general statement, I’m supportive o citizen led efforts to make change in our city, no matter how large or small. Unfortunately, this effort may not be the best use of people’s time, when time is of the essence.

It’ll all be over in 2 years

As the CA article notes, any effort to recall a sitting City Council member can’t be brought until two years into their term, which would be 2018. By the time the recall petition came to a vote in November of 2018, not only will the issue most likely have been decided: either by mediation or Council action, but Conrad’s term will be nearly over (13 months and change remaining).

Since Conrad is term limited, he won’t be a part of the Council when a new group is sworn in on January 1st of 2020.

While I understand people’s anger with Conrad’s words, tone and sentiment, going after him in this way is a waste of time. A recall effort at this point is a flight of fancy and won’t really solve anything since there’s still a chance that he wouldn’t actually be removed from office by a vote.

Remember, they tried this in Wisconsin with Scott Walker, and he came out of the experience stronger than ever.

Get to 7

As someone who routinely bugs the shit out of me, City Council Attorney Alan Wade, likes to say, “7 votes carries the day”.

So if you’re going to do politics…do it. Get 7 votes against Conrad’s ordinance.

That may sound hard, but its a helluva lot easier than trying to recall him when this whole thing is irrelevant.

Chances are there are 7 votes to get on the Council, but you have to be smart about it. Anger isn’t persuasive for most people. Anger leads to a hardening of the attitudes.

So Rule #1: Don’t be a dick.

Rule #2: Don’t threaten or get heated (see Rule #1).

Rule #3: Appeal to most people’s sense of ‘calmer heads prevailing’

If you present your case like this: “We want the Overton Park Conservancy to have a voice, and we support the ongoing mediation efforts. We’re not asking you to vote against the zoo, we’re asking you to vote against this ordinance at this time to give the mediation a chance to work.”

Does that get you what you want? NO

But its a way to keep you from getting what you absolutely don’t want…Conrad’s ordinance.

In those conversations, whether they be in person, on the phone, via email, or by mail, you may get some feedback indicating the Council member’s inclination. Start Counting

There are some other things you can do with 7 votes that I won’t get into. Get the 7 first, then give me a call.

Now, you may have tried this on some level, but what I’ve observed of City Council meetings, this hasn’t been presented to the Council this way. I’ve heard a lot of anger, and finger pointing, but not a lot of solutions. Choose any speakers wisely. Project calm. Project that you’re the more reasonable party than Conrad and his hastily written ordinance.

Conrad’s already taken some of that away from you by holding fire on the Second reading. Praise him for that.

The ordinance is the stick. Mediation is the carrot. Take the carrot and be happy, or get 7 votes and kill the ordinance.

Thinking Long-Term

While mounting a recall of a sitting Council member may be a waste of time, mounting an effort to change the way the City Council is elected may not be.

Right now there are 7 single member districts and 2 “Super Districts” with 3 members each.

How we got to this is a long and storied tale, but basically it came about as a result of an agreement between a Federal Court and the City Council way back in 1996.

If you want all the gory details, you can find a post I wrote about it in 2011 here.

Here’s what’s important. There are 7 districts with between 89,000 and 95,000 people in them, and 2 districts with over 323,000 people in them. What this does is makes everyone in the city have 4 City Councilmen, which is fine in theory, but as we’ve seen in the two decades since this arrangement has been in effect, has led to less diversity and more groupthink.

By pushing for a change in the way the district system works from the current arrangement to 13 single member districts, the districts get much smaller…just under 50,000 people per district.

What this would mean is it would take less money to get elected (especially compared to the Super Districts) and some areas of town that have never been home to a representative on the City Council since this arrangement was conceived would suddenly have more of a voice.

It puts the elected leaders on the Council closer to the people and thereby, more directly responsible to the people.

Would such a system prevent someone like your least favorite member of the Council (whomever that is) from getting elected? That would be more up to you than its ever been. And that’s the point.

The City Council doesn’t redistrict until before the 2023 election, but it will take a lot of pressure, and probably a Federal Court ruling approving of the new system to put it into effect. And it will meet some stiff resistance because some very powerful people will suddenly be less powerful and have to deal with people they’ve never had to deal with before, ever.

Just something to think about….but for now, start building bridges and rallying the votes to get 7 in the City Council. Because that’s how you get what you want… or at least keep from getting what you don’t want in a representative democracy.

May 16 2016

Gibbons Returns Triumphant

Bill Gibbons, via

Bill Gibbons,

Bill Gibbons, the former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security and a former Shelby County District Attorney General has returned to Memphis to take on crime once again.

Gibbons will join the Public Safety Institute at the University of Memphis to lend his experience as a DA to the study of protecting the public. He’s also re-taking the helm of the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission…a post he held until he joined state government in 2011.

While some see the move as an encouraging move to combat rising violent crime, its abundantly clear to me that the prescriptions advocated by Gibbons and other members of the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission, dating back to the 2006 inception of Operation Safe Community, have done little if anything to combat crime, while using a high water mark in violent crime to herald their “success”.

A False Hope

I touched on the way the Crime Commission juices the numbers earlier this year in a post about being more honest with the public’s data.

Since the inception of Operation Safe Community (OSC), the Crime Commission has used 2006, a high water mark for violent crime in Shelby County, as a benchmark to measure violent crime. This is where politicians get their numbers when they say “crime is down”. But by any real measure, crime isn’t down, especially not this year, which has seen more murders in the first four months of the year than any time since OSC began.

But even last year and the year before that, the rate of violent crime per 1000 people in Memphis and Shelby County hasn’t changed enough to say “crime is down” with any real confidence. This is because, violent crime, as a general statement has been largely the same in every year except 2006…the high water mark.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 10.16.12 AM

As you can see from the chart above, from 2004 to 2014, violent crime in Shelby County, as defined by the FBI Uniform Crime Report and reported by the various law enforcement agencies in the area, has stayed in a range of 15 to 20 crimes per 1000 people. Of the data available when I made this chart, 2006 was the high water mark.

OSC says they use 2006 because that’s when the program began. It then releases reports like this that on page 10 show decreases in crime on a particular month of the year. But in reality, no real progress is made. Violent crime, as a general statement, remains in the same range its been since a dramatic drop in violent crime nationwide in the 1990’s.

This is exactly why no one believes the crime numbers, and they shouldn’t. Crime may be down from a month in 2006 that no one remembers, but it has basically stayed in the same range for a decade.

An Ounce of Prevention

As it stands, local law enforcement acts as a reactionary force. Part of that just comes with the territory. But there are preventative measures that the police can employ that build trust from the public, and build stronger ties with communities without turning every high crime neighborhood into a military style occupation. I talked about some of those strategies after Toney Armstrong announced his departure from the MPD.

While the OSC 2012-16 plan talks about pilot programs for community oriented policing, with Armstrong’s departure, there’s no guarantee that this will continue.

One good thing in the OSC plan is that it calls for more supportive services outside of law enforcement, like mental health treatment access and job training. These are absolutely necessary tools, but there’s little talk of funding sources. These things are trotted out there to quell the ire of liberals like me, while little work is done to secure additional funding.

At the same time, the plan pushes for harsher sentences and mandatory minimums, which have been repeatedly shown to disproportionately impact racial minorities and the poor, at a time when such strategies are falling out of favor, to say the least.

What’s more, there’s not much evidence that the Crime Commission is following up on the progress for these specific initiatives, except when they warrant a press release.

Beware of False Prophets

There’s no question that organizations like the Crime Commission can be effective tools to help bring groups that otherwise wouldn’t talk to each other, together for a common cause. To the extent that this has happened, the Crime Commission has been successful.

The plan the Commission has laid out has lofty goals. But with such scarce communication with the public, there’s little hope of building the kind of buy-in that would help achieve them. The Commission has mostly been used as a PR tool to pump up the stats of politicians rather than bring these and other diverse groups together or educate the public in a real way. Gibbons was involved in the Commission’s creation. This pattern started with him at the helm. So there’s little reason to believe it will change now that he’s back.

Good intentions not withstanding, the Crime Commission which includes a host of ‘community partners’ suffers from the same problems other such boards do…the people who serve on them may be stakeholders, but they are not representative of the community, and so reaching out to the community is virtually impossible…which makes any real success at achieving the consistently moving target of truly reducing crime in Shelby County improbable at best.

There’s no question that Shelby County has a huge task in working to reduce crime in our community. But lets be real about it, and talk about the warts at least as openly as we talk about the successes. Give people actionable things to do before a call to 911 is necessary rather than relying solely on the constant drumbeat of ‘report the crime’. Make sure law enforcement is building relationships lasting relationships with communities of need.

Side Note: As for Gibbons, he has some baggage that just about everyone has ignored. There have been several instances of prosecutorial misconduct that happened under his watch before he went to Nashville in 2011. But Gibbons hasn’t had to answer to any of these findings. Instead it has been Weirich who has been in the crosshairs.

For certain, Weirich deserves scrutiny where she was directly involved, but Gibbons was Weirich’s mentor before that, and boss while some of this went down. Yet he’s been able to skirt by while Weirich takes the heat.