The Transit Referendum Vote Can-Finally-Put African Americans in the Driver’s Seat

jeff obafemi carr Photo by Bralyn Stokes Photography

Editorial by jeff obafemi carr

I’m an unlikely, unpredictable guy when it comes to politics, and that’s not a bad thing in today’s political landscape. As a political Independent, I’ve worked to not give my blind allegiance to people based on their party affiliation alone, but rather, to look at issues solely based on their merit and tangible benefit to—especially—the “least of these” in the world, including people in Nashville who look and live like me.

I’m a small business owner, a husband and father of five public school kids, an interfaith minister, and a creative who has understood, via life experiences, Sophia’s line in The Color Purple “All my life I had to fight.” I’m in a fight right now, and I couldn’t be more proud to be in the thick of the changing political landscape, as long as we walk away—this time—with something to show for it.

You see, I’ve made it to the wonderful young age of 50, and that means that, as a native of Nashville, I’ve lived to see a string of bait-and-switch promises that have been made—and crushingly broken—to our communities. I was barely out of my teens when the citizens of Bordeaux had to fight the burden of hosting the city dump and the dog pound; I was publishing a newspaper, The Third Eye, in my twenties when General Hospital was seeking a lifeline and Meharry Medical College offered Hubbard Hospital (where I, incidentally, was born) in a merger that I helped push through with a community effort and a front page editorial in my paper.

In my early thirties, I helped stave off the state of Tennessee as they came at Anthony Cebrun’s Tennessee Managed Care Network and Sam Howard’s Phoenix Healthcare by publishing the one expose’ in the community that dared call out a system that was discriminating against black companies who had the nerve to simply do well in managing millions of dollars provided for healthcare for minorities and the underserved.

Then, of course, there was that Sit-In at Tennessee State. But that’s another story.

Through it all, I’ve watched politicians make promise after promise, and with each evolving round, we get placed deeper and deeper in the hole. The African-American sycophants change, but the message they bring to our communities is always the same:

Trust them this time. They will do better. This time it will be different if we vote for this.

We can’t afford to believe them anymore. The historical record is clear. It’s the same old song, and this time, we need to call the tune.

In the wake of Mayor Megan Barry’s felony conviction and subsequent resignation from office, we actually now have a chance to influence politics in a way never before seen in Nashville, and the way to do it is by first voting against the proposed “Transit Plan.” I’m very proudly working with the NoTax4Tracks coalition for one reason: they are listening, pointing out the facts, and ensuring that we all actually read this complicated 55-page plan with an even more complicated referendum coming to us on May 1st.

In the course of getting this word out, it’s been a unique challenge. The city’s politicians have working in their favor the power and influence of the Chamber of Commerce, the (Vice) Mayor’s Office, several members of the council who enjoy the spotlight, and a well-financed Political Action Committee, the Citizens for Greater Mobility, who have employed a small army of African-American consultants and marketers to persuade us to vote “for transit” with the same old tactics we’ve heard before.

On Jefferson Street just last week, the team working to get black folk to sign up to pay one of the highest sales taxes in the nation, and a 20% additional tax on businesses, invoked an old pitch: that it will provide our community with “jobs for all!” I’ve offered to openly debate the facts, and it falls on deaf ears. This die of “towing the party line” regardless of the facts was cast during American Slavery. But I’ve got news:

That just won’t work anymore.

We’ve heard it all before, and this time, we’ve got to think strategically. The attempted Cloud Hill project, a giveaway of the sacred grounds of Ft. Negley, which employed some of the same people working for the “for transit” side to market how good it would be for us, was shrouded in secrecy and back room deals. The attempted takeover of the Bordeaux YMCA, another behind-closed-doors deal between the Barry Administration and the landowners, was stopped by concerned area residents and entrepreneurs. African-American and other council members were stunned when—just days after being persuaded to approve a $255 Million-Dollar deal for a soccer stadium at the fairgrounds, which included a 10 acre city-land giveaway to billionaire developers who have ownership in the soccer team—a proposal to close the city’s only indigent care hospital came across the table.

Are you seeing a pattern here? We vote with hope, and our hopes are dashed because we did it backwards.

Now, our votes are needed again, and this time, we’re being promised jobs, minority contracts (did I mention I’ve seen three “disparity studies” in 30 years that keep revealing that we don’t get city contracts?), and even…get this…free bus passes. Never mind the fact that the rail lines, which are 90% of the $9 Billion dollars of tax funding, aren’t going to run to the most congested parts of Nashville where the traffic is worst. That’s $150 million dollars per mile of rail that won’t give us trains in Bordeaux, Antioch, Bellevue, and other neighborhoods—but straps our elderly and the poor among us with the bill for paying for what is essentially a downtown playground.

I suggest that, just this once, we try it a different way. Instead of acting on promises, let’s take matters into our own hands. By voting against the referendum on May 1st, we can go back to the drawing board, and whoever ends up stepping into the Mayor’s seat for this unexpired term will then have to listen to us, put laws, ordinances, and priorities into action, and engage with us meaningfully on the front end—as power brokers, instead of people with broken power. The ball is, finally, in our court.

Let’s not give away a chance to finally win a championship together, and see fairness and equity for everyone—especially our communities.

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