The Politics of Place and Race in America’s Privatized City

David Segal (writing for the business section of the New York Times) and The Economist have taken note of the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs in the past two months. Although its landscape, demographics, and commercial development are little distinguished from many other affluent postwar suburban towns, Sandy Springs matters to metropolitan history for two reasons.

First, perhaps more than any other municipality in the United States, Sandy Springs has privatized its municipal services, and made privatization and the advocacy of privatization the core of its municipal mission.

Second, Sandy Springs residents, local officials, and representatives in the state legislature have been at the forefront of a controversial movement to separate Sandy Springs and several nearby suburbs north of Atlanta from the rest of Fulton County, creating one new majority white county called Milton and leaving the remainder of Fulton County to serve the needs of a basically unchanged poor population with a drastically reduced tax base.

Both Segal in the Times and The Economist interpreted Sandy Springs’s significance in terms of the contemporary vogue for privatization, the ascendancy of market logics over the traditional public sector, and a presumption toward localism as core principles of a new form of municipal governance. While these interpretive frames point to real and significant trends in political economy, they discourage us from thinking about longer-term processes of development that produced places like Sandy Springs, or asking important questions about how the political organization of local government in Sandy Springs affects not simply local services and taxation but a broader metropolitan community.

Race, as with many metropolitan phenomena, is deeply embedded in the controversy, but in ways that are not readily apparent unless a longer historical view is taken. To the point, pre-incorporation Sandy Springs was the product of discriminatory real estate practices that excluded minorities from living there and of a racially-saturated campaign of resistance to annexation by Atlanta in the mid-1960s. As Kevin Kruse has shown, a 1966 citizen pamphlet titled Save Sandy Springs charged that black Atlantans’ bloc voting power was the driving force behind mayor William Hartsfield’s push to annex Sandy Springs. In other words, it framed annexation specifically as a black grab for white resources that Sandy Springs could resist by maintaining its political independence. Other anti-annexation missives Kruse found in his research were blunter, declaring

“We will NEVER agree to coming into Atlanta,” warned spokesmen for Sandy Springs. Instead, they vowed to “build up a city separate from Atlanta and your Negroes and forbid any Negroes to buy, or own or live within our limits. You have forced this on us and we will fight to the finish.”

This resistance, racial at its core, kept the area unincorporated even after other affluent and largely white areas like Buckhead were absorbed within Atlanta’s expanding boundaries. While much of the overtly racial rhetoric of this politics of grievance over taxes and service has been stripped away since the days of resistance to annexation, the terms that Sandy Springs residents use to describe the more recent politics of incorporation–in Mayor Eva Galambos’s terms “a desire to have local dollars remain local”–remain tied to the pervasive view that other communities in Fulton County are draining the pockets of Sandy Springs taxpayers.

Further, the impulse toward privatization in Atlanta, presented as a matter of efficiency and fiscal responsibility in 2012, looks far less innocent in historical perspective. Kruse ably shows that whites all over the region, first in Atlanta and later in the suburbs, withdrew from the use of public facilities after the Brown v. Board of Education decision precisely to avoid using facilities that courts ordered to be desegregated.

Today’s post-incorporation city and its residents do not acknowledge this history. Despite the fact that privatization and independence from Atlanta are the two central pillars of Sandy Springs’ political culture, Segal quotes unnamed “champions of Sandy Springs” who argue that “race had nothing to do with the decision to incorporate, [noting] there are now 30% minorities in the community.”

Absent clairvoyant powers or extensive psychological profiling, it’s impossible to gainsay such claims; residents most likely honestly see no connection between past events and actors and their own circumstances. Certainly, one of Sandy Springs’s most notable black residents, former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, is a leading authority on the presence or absence of racial animus and appears to find Sandy Springs a congenial place to live. But the presence of open bigotry is hardly the point. Although systemic racism and mobilized prejudice were essential to creating the demographic and political community that now exists in Sandy Springs (one notably more affluent than the metro area as a whole), current residents are able to separate their current community from its history, making them less likely to view any demands to support the rest of Fulton County through taxes as legitimate. In this regard, residents may, perhaps without realizing it, be employing the kind of distancing strategies that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Tyrone Forman, Amanda Lewis, and David Embrick identify as the linchpin of contemporary resistance to racial equity: “It wasn’t me!”

It is one thing to highlight the influence of Sandy Springs residents decades ago in perpetuating racial inequalities in metropolitan Atlanta at the height of white flight and desegregation battles. What is less clearly understood, in my view, is that Sandy Springs’ contemporary civic self-presentation, embraced by its current residents and defined by this frame of innocence, is an important instrument in political struggles that will affect the prospects of racial equality in greater Atlanta in the future. Oliver Porter, an incorporation advocate who served as the first interim city manager in 2005, described his response to the incorporation vote to Segal:

 It was like a dog that’s been chasing a train for years and finally catches it…. The question was, What do I do with it now?

Porter’s recollection seems a bit disingenuous, because the legislation enabling incorporation passed after a long struggle. Sandy Springs incorporation advocates had long been pushing and pulling on the levers of power in state government to create their city. Furthermore, their political behavior after incorporation showed that they had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted to do next—continue to separate themselves from the rest of Fulton County. After incorporation, Sandy Springs did not depend on Fulton County for its services, bringing a larger goal of political separation from Atlanta and south Fulton a step closer to realization. Legislators from Sandy Springs and other North Fulton County areas have persistently introduced legislation that would amend the Georgia state constitution to allow the formation of a county named Milton out of the northern suburbs of Fulton County.

Although growing Republican strength in the state legislature, led by Alpharetta Republican Jan Jones (the current Speaker Pro Tem of the House and a prospective Milton County resident) makes the separation more likely, it still faces strong opposition.

 Some Georgia politicians outside Sandy Springs regard it and other breakaway towns as “the first shot in the battle to destroy Fulton County,” as State Senator Vincent Fort, a Democrat whose district includes part of Atlanta, put it.“What you have is the northern section of the county,” he went on, “which is mostly white, seeking to leave the rest of Fulton County, and doing so with what I think are racially tinged arguments about the corruption and inefficiency of local government.”

Although Fort is clearly spitting into the wind against the color-blind rules of contemporary political discourse, it’s worth noting that it takes very few analytical steps to connect white Atlantans’ history of withdrawal from the public sphere, the growing predominance of African Americans in Fulton County government and public sector employment, and the fervor for privatization that prevails in places like Sandy Springs, where city Manager John McDonough says

Work handled by 15 public employees can be done by 12 privately employed workers…. “It’s all about the caliber of employee and the customer focus that comes out of the private sector.”

The argument from efficiency is increasingly influential as austerity policies cascade downward from the federal to state and local levels of government. But arguments for efficiency and austerity do not just invoke ideas about budgets, they invoke ideas about people and places that have deep roots in culture and politics. When any public official makes generalizations about the “caliber of employee” to be found in public versus private sectors, racial implications cannot be easily dismissed. High employment for African Americans in the public sector was won through decades of struggle for living wages and workplace dignity and safety and against overt racial discrimination. Hostility toward the public sector should face close scrutiny, particularly in a metro area where the private sphere has historically been vigorously championed as an alternative to public space where “free association” could trump racial integration.

 More on this to come.

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10 comments on “The Politics of Place and Race in America’s Privatized City

  1. […] I’ve written here, contemporary libertarian, objectivist, and other conservative objections to big government and the […]

  2. […] had heard of Stanley Kurtz’s new book in the course of some research on Fulton County secession, and aside from a morbid curiosity about what evil lurks in the brains of the professional […]

  3. […] in 2001 because the power of the Fulton delegation thus constituted was a consistent roadblock to incorporating a city in Sandy Springs. Although their suit failed, the shift in statewide power to the GOP meant that north Fulton got […]

  4. […] from DeKalb or any other internally diverse metro county won’t push to follow suit. The politics of race are deeply woven in these jurisdictional […]

  5. […] particular, an emphasis on “practical governing” took the form of privatism that presented the inherent ease of governing an affluent area as a result of efficiency and discipline, and the inverse, a rhetorical club with […]

  6. […] community and that are frequently glossed over by today’s advocates of contract cities and municipal privatization. Among those I’ve written […]

  7. […] won’t beat a dead horse about this any more than necessary, but these kinds of complaints do suggest that the folks in most of these […]

  8. […] political power, or social outcomes. The metropolitan poor are not victims of historical processes put in motion to serve interests other than their own, but of their own […]

  9. […] white majority cities that privatized services, cut taxes, and avoided the established County workforce. I wrote about that in a scholarly way here, and also touched on some of the ironies of “good […]

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