Amp Discussion Exposes Racial Fault Lines

This is my latest piece on transit justice.  The essay appeared in the Tennessean newspaper.  I am posting it with the original title (it was changed by the Tennessean).


For the better part of a year, I was part of a North Nashville coalition that assessed the Amp’s impact on transit-dependent communities. Contrary to media reports, there was not a consensus within the North Nashville group that Charlotte Avenue was a better alternative to the West End section of the 7.1-mile east-west route.

Our main concern was that Amp advocates, backed by the mayor’s office and Metro Transit Authority officials, selectively picked winners and losers for the project. They relied on flawed data, steered federal civil rights officers away from studying North Nashville bus routes and backed zoning changes to boost the appearance of higher ridership in the West End corridor, which stands to benefit the most from the Amp.

The pro-Amp group’s East Nashville angle also has been an insincere attempt to inoculate itself from racial and civil rights scrutiny. Pro-Amp advocates claim that Amp terminals east of the river will help working-class blacks, when in reality, they are located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The project could actually accelerate the displacement of blacks who still remain in the Main Street-Five Points area.

The Amp debate also has exposed how Nashville’s leading officials exploit the politics of race while lacking any real commitment to systemic racial inequities. Similar to the debate about the Sulphur Dell ballpark, Amp supporters have brought attention to distressed communities and African-Americans, but only to bolster a stage-managed narrative of Chamber of Commerce boosterism — a narrative that is not intended to help African-Americans or distressed communities, but meant to convince urban pioneers that Nashville is the premier Southeast destination.

The irony is that the so-called distressed neighborhoods for both projects (Germantown for Sulphur Dell and Main Street-Five Points for the Amp) are places where working-class African-Americans are being pushed out in record numbers.

To be fair, Stop the Amp advocates must confront their own not-in-my-backyard biases despite their legitimate concerns about traffic, costs and planning. Much of their angst is based on the fear that so-called undesirables (poor, people of color, homeless, suspected criminals) will use the Amp to easily access their neighborhoods. To this end, pro- and anti-Amp advocates are reading from the same script of racial indifference.

The Amp project raises other questions: Is Mayor Karl Dean’s allegiance to the West End corridor related to his push for charter schools in the same community? Will the Amp’s first-tier contracts go to politically connected business leaders? And will low-income riders, including those who have no access to the Amp, subsidize the project through fare hikes or cutbacks to routes?

Unfortunately, Nashville’s leading officials are allergic to correcting the fault lines of race and class privilege underlying the Amp debate. The MTA and the mayor’s office seem committed to using the Amp to create an escapist bubble for urban pioneers so they can travel throughout Nashville’s inner core without sitting next to the undesirables. The Metro Council seems to believe that trickle-down development projects actually amount to legitimate poverty reduction initiatives. And the NIMBYites have never come to terms with their own racial and class biases. Thus, the biggest loser in the Amp debate is a healthy and much-needed discussion about transit (and racial) equity.


About Sekou Franklin

This blog is a reflection on the broad field of social movements that advance public agendas on behalf of what theologian Howard Thurman called the disinherited, or people who stand with their backs against the wall. Dr. Sekou Franklin is Associate Professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and is the author of After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (NYU Press, 2014).
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