“Unspoken” By Whom?

Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution reflects on the fact that virtually all–45 of 46–of the elected officials in recently incorporated metro Atlanta cities are white. Reporters Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy tiptoe around the racial unbalance of the new cities, affluent and white-majority portions of counties where whites are not a majority. They note that the disproportionate whiteness of local government is causing some people to wonder if race was a motivating factor, while giving equal time to officials of the new cities and advocates for incorporating more white-majority cities who claim a color-blind racial innocence.

What’s more galling, however, than this brand of wishy-washy balance, is the way that Torpy and Edwards construe the controversy as new:

But one impact of new cities in metro Atlanta has gone largely unspoken: all have led to elected governments that are almost entirely white in counties where whites are no longer a majority.

The problem with the “largely unspoken” claim is that it’s utter and complete bull. Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus opposed the incorporation of Sandy Springs for years, charging that the incorporation was an effort to create a white-controlled city and to protect the affluent area from annexation by Atlanta’s black-majority government. The incorporation only passed in 2005 after the Republican takeover of both houses of the General Assembly. After the affluent and white-majority cities of Milton, Johns Creek, and Chattahoochee Hills in Fulton County and Dunwoody in DeKalb County incorporated, the Legislative Black Caucus and the Reverend Joseph Lowery sued under the Voting Rights Act to demand that the cities be legally dissolved precisely on the grounds that the new cities would make it impossible for minority residents of those cities to have effective political representation.

The suit, Lowery v. Deal, was dismissed 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 Urban Affairs dealing with the racial dynamics of local government in Fulton County. I won’t spoil the plot, but I argue that white suburbanites have, just as much as they resisted residential integration out of fear of having black neighbors on their block, resisted political community with African Americans because of stereotypical understandings of black-led government as profligate, corrupt, and accountable exclusively to black interests. This form of racial antipathy, which focused on the presence of black people in city hall, undergirded resistance to annexation of Sandy Springs by Atlanta in 1966 and a three-decade movement to incorporate the area. Today it undergirds efforts to reduce the scope and power of Fulton County government and to separate north Fulton in a new Milton County. Color-blind rhetoric about efficiency and responsiveness of local government are intelligible to voters in the context of this racialized set of assumptions about black-led governments. So my argument is that the whiteness of local government in these cities is, if not the whole point of incorporation, a major motivating factor. It’s unfortunate that the AJC gives equal time to disingenuous denials of this political reality. 

But it’s more disappointing that the AJC fails to acknowledge its own complicity in making the charge of racial exclusion “unspoken”. The paper offered no substantive coverage of the claims made in Lowery while the suit was pending. If the arguments of the most influential group of black elected officials in the state, along with one of the most influential leaders of the ongoing movement for black freedom and civil rights, have been ignored by a major metropolitan paper, it is a clear indication that arguments on race made by nonwhites are not unspoken so much as unheard.

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