Discrimination in Memphis

Jonathan Cole Speaks Before the Memphis City Council

As I noted in Morning Coffee, yesterday was a pretty active day at the Memphis City Council. One of the other big issues was the Non-Discrimination Ordinance, sponsored by Councilwoman Janis Fullilove and the Shelby County contingent of the TEP.

As has been widely reported, the ordinance was withdrawn yesterday due to a belief that support for the ordinance was lagging, and that the ordinance had not been treated fairly by members of the City Council, particularly Barbara Swearengen Ware, who requested the ordinance be pulled off the Consent Agenda on its first reading, and Councilman Bill Morrison who offered an amendment even more watered down than the ordinance that passed in the Shelby County Commission earlier this year.

These circumstances, and the pillow soft support of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton ultimately led to the withdrawal.

Shelby County TEP Chair Jonathan Cole spoke before the Council last night and cited the appearance of bias against the ordinance as one of the reasons for the withdrawal.

Councilman Myron Lowery contested Cole’s assertion that the Ordinance had not received a fair hearing, and said he wished the Ordinance would be allowed to come up for a vote. Lowery voted for the Ordinance on First Read two weeks ago.

In talking to Jonathan after his statement he noted that a great deal more work needed to be done in order to secure workplace protections for GLBT City employees and that the TEP would continue to strive for those protections despite the withdrawal of the Ordinance.

Discrimination is a destructive force in our community, yet it persists in many different forms. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided protections for women and racial minorities long before attitudes about those groups began to change. Laws often change more quickly than minds. It takes strong leadership, from both the people these laws would impact, and political leaders to allow the law to lead us out of the darkness of discrimination into the light of equality. It seems that many of our political leaders are more interested in maintaining their political capitol than spending it on an issue that should be a no-brainer.

If we use the Civil Rights Act as a model for reform, we see that the use of the words race, color, religion, sex, or national origin are critical to provide specific protections for people who faced discrimination. Using “non-merit based reasons for dismissal or lack of consideration for a position” to cover a specific group of people is inadequate. Opponents of reform consistently use this tactic to avoid the issue. Without specificity there really is no reform. This seems to be the stance taken by the TEP, and I couldn’t agree with them more.

It is the specificity of the Civil Rights Act that made it possible to positively impact the lives of millions of Americans by making discrimination based on the metrics provided in the law illegal. Without that specificity there is no protection, and while policy makers may feel the need to compromise on controversial issues, there can be no compromise on protecting communities of people who face discrimination. Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression must be included in order to truly protect GLBT employees.

Memphis has a long history of being resistant to provide protections for populations that face discrimination, as any Civil Rights activist in this city can tell you. It is unfortunate but perhaps not that surprising that the conditions in the City Council have ultimately continued this resistance through their actions on this issue.

I know that the TEP will be back and stronger than ever to fight for equal workplace protections for GLBT employees in City government. I also know they have a lot of work to do to change enough minds on the City Council to eventually change the law. I applaud them on their commitment to hold firm on the specific language. Its an uphill battle, but its a battle that must be fought to truly gain the protections they seek.

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