What’s Race Got to Do With It?

The campaign to split Fulton County in Georgia is, to say the least, fraught with racial implications. More to the point, the controversy illustrates competing frames of understanding about what is and isn’t racial or racist.

Reaction to a 2011 voting rights lawsuit filed by the Rev. Joseph Lowery and members of the state legislature’s Black Caucus illustrates this dynamic quite clearly. Lowery v. Deal demanded the disincorporation of several recently-formed northern suburbs, including Sandy Springs, and injunction against legislative action to create Milton County. The politics of the suit–impeding the creation of Milton County by returning the cities to an unincorporated status where they would receive services from Fulton County– were, in my view, somewhat at odds with the core legal claim of the suit–that the cities were majority-white and thus diluted minority voting strength in violation of the Voting Right Act.

Judge Timothy Batten, Sr.’s dismissal of the suit in March 2012 could be critiqued on many fronts (and check back here for more on that), but certainly validated the position of advocates for the new cities; as State Representative (and Sandy Springs City Attorney) Wendell Willard argued when the suit was filed, creating new cities was only a positive in terms of democratic participation, giving all residents another, closer set of officials to vote for.

“They claim a dilution of voting power, but in fact there hasn’t been any dilution. The people who live in these cities still have the ability to vote, as they have in presidential elections, state elections, county elections – now we’ve added for them the benefit of voting in a local election.”

No one was being denied anything, and certainly not because of race.

Nonetheless, resolving the fairness of the cities’ incorporations only accentuates the larger issue: that the incorporated cities are in a much stronger position to work to split the county. This was a fact recognized by all observers of the suit, and for a matter that was not about race, race had an odd way of popping up in discussions of the suit on the web in 2011.

White supremacist sites, including one operated by author Paul Kersey under the charming name “Stuff Black People Don’t Like” [No Links to Bigots Policy] was quite happy to frame the suit and the larger controversy as battles in open racial conflict. Kersey optimistically argued that pro-Milton County forces were striking back against “BRA” (an imaginary state of affairs called “Black Ruled America”).

South Fulton is full of Black people whose mere existence is predicated on the redistribution of tax dollars collected from the North Fulton residents…. Tired of playing Atlas for Fulton County’s Black residents, the largely white residents of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Dunwoody have decided to finally shrug.

In his imagination, then, the battle over Milton County is the Fort Sumter of a war of redemption:

The push of that domino – the first domino – will come when DWL [note: Disingenuous White Liberal] residents of the Northside attempted [sic] to form their own county. The Department of Justice will attempt to intervene, thereby showing that white people have only one role and one duty in BRA: to continue working and paying taxes to support Black people’s proliferation (and, increasingly, other non-white minorities)….Once the push comes, the legitimacy of BRA will end. The salvation of Real America ironically begins in the same city where the dream of the Confederacy was burned to the ground.

Yikes! More mainstream conservatives like “lineholder” at Red State had a more difficult time explaining why they deeply opposed the suit and its aims in non-racial terms. This required some explaining away of basic social facts, like how exactly most of Fulton County’s white people and money ended up north of the Chattahoochie River, without recourse to any explanation that involved racial animosity.

The theory of “white flight” originates from the 1950s and 1960s. It contends that financial institutions owned or operated primarily by white people were willing to lend housing funds to white people seeking to live in the suburbs but refused to do the same for black people.This led to redlining, mortgage discrimination, racially-restrictive covenants, and environmental racism, “all of which deny black people their chance to obtain the American dream”.

It’s a good thing none of those things happened in reality, just “in theory!”

Rhetorically of course this use of the “theory of white flight” is analogous to the way that religious conservatives refer to the “theory” of evolution: as an unfounded and wrong explanation for uncomfortable facts, rather than as a set of explanatory statements based on extensive research and evidence (somehow I don’t think that Kevin Kruse is terribly worried about being cast as Red State’s Charles Darwin on this issue, or as Race Traitor Number One at SBPDL)

And, much like creationists imagine the diversity of life to have been created in its present state, “lineholder” seems to think that North Fulton communities simply look the way they do… well, just because. Questioning why and how segregation and spatial stratification developed is just a step away from dystopic outcomes:

What implications might the “white flight” theory have for other white citizens in this country? Does it mean a white person has to gain permission before they move from a certain area?

It’s interesting that while the economic and racial polarization of Fulton County is dogmatically regarded as Not About Race, “lineholder” is quite willing to interpret the suit in terms of its potential negative impacts on white people. There’s a long tradition of this in America, as W.E.B. DuBois shows us. Of course, denying the historical reality of white flight in Atlanta and elsewhere as a generative moment of contemporary conservatism is a tough delusion to maintain. The Council of Conservative Citizens [NLTBP] at least dropped the pretense, writing on March 30, 2011 of Lowery v. Deal that

White people have fled Atlanta for obvious reasons. Parts of the majority black city now resemble the third world. Now a collection of “white flight” communities outside Atlanta want to secede from Fulton and Dekab counties and form a new Milton County. The black legislative caucus of Georgia filed a lawsuit demanding that the city charters of several “white flight” communities be dissolved. They claim that the majority white cities violate their “voting rights.”… Atlanta is a crime ridden cesspool. Instead of trying to improve the black community, race hustling black lawmakers want to outlaw white flight.

Despite all that is repugnant in these statements, I have to at least respect the honesty on display.

The contrast between these rhetorical framings of pro-Milton/anti-Lowery positions illustrates a difficult analytical and methodological challenge for scholars. While the nakedly white supremacist position is definitely out there in the public, and no doubt a greater-than-zero share of the pro-Milton crowd shares it, it’s extremely difficult to demonstrate that naked bigotry is driving the mainstream Republican position, and irresponsible to attribute the views of one segment of a broad coalition to all of its members. What, in other words, is the linkage between a declaration like this from Stuff Black People Don’t Like

Though it might not seem that obvious yet, the coming political war in Fulton County is the start of a series of clashes around the nation, as white people begin to slowly understand the burden of high taxation goes directly to pay for public jobs and services that go toward their dispossession.

and state Representative Jan Jones’s pledge to

reduce the thumbprint … of Fulton County on your lives and your pocketbooks such that in a very few years, Atlanta and south Fulton will not fight us on recreating Milton County because Fulton County will be insignificant,” she said. “We will begin that process next year.”

As I’ve written here, contemporary libertarian, objectivist, and other conservative objections to big government and the public sector do not exist in a historical or spatial vacuum. As ideas, they are rooted in particular social spaces and bear the imprint of the history of those places. That means that in Atlanta’s postwar history, discussions about shrinking the public sector have never existed independently of the politics of white resentment over the ways that minorities, when enfranchised and empowered, have sought to use the public sector as a means of securing economic or social security.

3 comments on “What’s Race Got to Do With It?

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] by the district court and an appeal failed to win in the Circuit Court. I’ve written about the suit here, and will have an article published at some point in the future in the Journal of […]

  3. […] and denied those voters the ability to influence the decision to form cities. The dismissal of the voting rights suit Lowery v. Deal in 2013 (which I wrote about in a study of metropolitan fragmentation and […]

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