The Knox legislative delegation’s answer to the Stooges
Tennessee is a state with a great many serious practical problems. Public education is underfunded at every level. Air pollution, even in this region proud of its natural environment, is worse than it is in most of the country, including major urban areas. And now we can’t even afford to take care of the least able among our critically ill. Our sales tax is absurdly high; the tax burden on the working poor is bigger than it is in most states. We seem locked in a continuing state of crisis.
And what do representatives from Knox County, the state’s center for higher education, do? One, Rep. Bill Dunn, busies himself with attempts to ban gay marriage—which has never been legal in Tennessee to begin with. Now he’s the House Republicans’ freshly elected leader.
Last month, Rep. Dunn’s colleague from another West Knoxville district may have topped him. Stacey Campfield, a real-estate developer, was elected to represent the 18th District last year. The district takes in some of the more populous parts of West Knoxville, on both sides of I-40. So far he’s best known nationwide as the white kid who insisted he deserved a place on the Black Caucus.
All we need is a Moe, to make it all funny. But even Moe never had a job that tough.
Campfield insists that the Black Caucus should be open to white members. He equated it with the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan is a largely secret organization that has been implicated in the murders of thousands of people, from the 1860s until at least the 1960s, and in efforts to prevent people of different colors to vote or attend the schools of their choice. Campfield has since claimed that his reference to the Klan was a “misunderstanding.”
Campfield might find it much easier to earn a place on the Idiot Caucus. His credentials would not be questioned.
His stupid fraternity prank does reflect a reality among Tennessee’s ethnic majority. Campfield’s statement deserves examination only because it’s a sort of an extreme version of a common notion. It’s a symptom of some simplistic thinking, or something akin to thinking, on the part of many complacent whites.
An acquaintance who actually did have a college education once argued that he thought it was perfectly appropriate for Cherokee Country Club to be all white, as it was for many years, because, he said, there were all-black social clubs in East Knoxville.
It’s not the same thing. The necessity of explaining the fact that it’s not the same thing may make us despair that we’re making any progress as a civilization. But here goes.
Without organizations, many minorities would be forgotten, voted down, kicked aside. If Stacey Campfield lived in Mexico or Pakistan or Indonesia, and we suspect many now wish he did, we believe he might come to understand that there are legitimate reasons for an ethnic minority to congregate, for fellowship, for safety, for addressing the certain problems and challenges they share with each other, but not necessarily with the larger population.
There are never good reasons to form clubs for an ethnic majority. The concerns of ethnic majorities tend to get taken care of without special efforts at organization. We need only to review the roster of those who were saved, and those who weren’t, a month ago in New Orleans.
The Tennessee General Assembly is controlled by an overwhelming majority of white people. It always has been, and since Tennessee has a white majority of 80 percent, it probably always will be. The state has never had a black governor, or a black U.S. senator, even during Reconstruction. If blacks vote for black issues and whites vote for white issues, black issues will never be on the agenda. Without a black caucus organized to remind the majority of problems that the majority is insulated from, the civil rights gains of the last half-century could easily slip back to where conditions were when whites controlled everything, rather than merely almost everything.
The real issues of black citizens—especially racial discrimination, which still exists—might never be addressed.
It’s not all his fault. There are lots of people who do things as dumb as Stacey Campfield does. Every village has its idiot, and Knoxville may have more than its share. Though he does reportedly have a BS in management from Regents College, there are some issues he’s probably never thought much about. There are a lot of people like him.
What’s harder to explain is how he got the job representing an affluent and relatively well-educated part of town. Every time the name Stacey Campfield, the white boy who insisted on his right to join the black caucus, is mentioned on the state or national news, we get to see him identified, “R-Knoxville.” People across the state, and even the nation, may be looking to the voters of the Knoxville’s 18th District and wondering the same thing: What were you thinking?