American Studies Association Report

I spent the weekend of October 8-11 in Toronto  for the American Studies Association annual meeting, which included a number of panels around the theme of misery, its production and reproduction, and resistance to it. One session really struck me as a historian and a researcher. Filmmaker Orlando de Guzman screened and discussed his Focus documentary “Ferguson: A Report from Occupied Territory.” (link to full doc, embedded videos below are clips) I’ve followed Ferguson a bit, and had some things to say (as well as highlighting things written by others) about how the events there highlight the convergence of policing and the carceral state and officially supported racial segregation and dispossession.

So, I’ve always been receptive to the argument that the unrest in Ferguson reflected more than just the horrifying killing of Michael Brown, but rather spoke to a much longer and broader cycle of immiseration by policy. As Walter Johnson and Richard Rothstein, and Colin Gordon, among others, have argued, the story of Ferguson and many inner-ring suburbs like it is not simply a mechanistic process of white flight and abandonment. Rather, governments at local, state, and national scales have chosen to promote and encourage segregation, countenance gross disparities in school funding, and, more recently, to allow local governments to raise revenue by fines in lieu of state support to municipalities.

It’s a bitter irony that the multitude of municipal governments dotting St. Louis County were originally formed to keep Black residents out through exclusionary zoning; now, through a private market that has allowed many whites to relocate from close-in North County suburbs and (weak) federal mandates for regional sharing of affordable housing, those municipalities have become much blacker, but their governments exploit their Black populations for revenue.

This is the history that Ferguson’s residents, and the residents of other North County areas near St. Louis, live out. One thing that’s humbling to me as a researcher is that I’ve long argued that the political fragmentation of metro areas supports racial inequalities and creates a metropolitan social life that justifies and naturalizes those inequalities, particularly by creating both property and emotional investments by whites in maintaining local control of their communities. But, one thing that de Guzman allows his subjects to reveal is that the significance of boundaries has been obvious and inescapable to Black North County residents for years. Crossing a municipal border is inviting harassment from a new police agency that sees a Black driver as a revenue opportunity. And Black residents like Chris Brown Sr., interviewed throughout de Guzman’s film, plan their travel around it.

To put it another way, I spend a lot of time and effort using involved research and fine-pointed writing to try to convince a relatively elite audience of something that is so obvious to North County residents as to require little exposition among themselves. A shuffle between jails and courts in one city and the next is simply the “muni shuffle,” a dance that links yesterday’s use of fragmented borders to exclude the Black and poor to today’s use of those borders to exploit them for revenue.

And, when reports like the one published by Arch City Defenders (link to .pdf) revealed the extent of the process, many people like me regarded it as earth-shaking. Academics consider ourselves quite savvy and well-informed, but our capacity for surprise is sometimes larger than we’d care to admit. If we were to place ourselves in this scene–a community forum convened by Governor Jay Nixon after the decision not to indict Wilson–would our roles be more like the people on the rostrum or the people in the audience?

OAH Reading: Carlton Basmajian on the Atlanta Regional Commission

I’m here at the OAH meeting in Atlanta, getting ready to give a talk on the complexities of black political positions on metropolitan consolidation and annexation in the 1970s. The typical discussion on the matter frames it as a conflict between the need to take in more territory and tax base and the black political imperative to avoid diluting the black vote as it became a majority in the city electorate. This framing is too binary and simplified, because it ignores the way that taking positions and advancing policies on annexation was a strategic maneuver that could demonstrate the bona fides of black politicians to compromise “black” interests and support policies the business elite favored. It also conceals the fact that many black politicians believed that a properly tailored annexation plan could both expand the city’s fiscal base and preserve black power even if it took in tens of thousands of affluent whites. And, even more subtly, black politicians had to avoid playing up that belief in order to make it look like they were actually making a political sacrifice.

My talk sort of tails off at the point where black city and state politicians drift apart on the annexation question. After the 1970s, a window closes, and the region and the state government become less interested in annexation and political boundaries (until relatively recently, with the push to split Fulton County).

A new book, Carlton Wade Basmajian’s  Atlanta Unbound: Enabling Sprawl Through Policy and Planning (Temple, 2013) helps to explain why in a clever and provocative way. The reason that the metropolitan area has fragmented more and momentum for consolidation has failed, Basmajian contends, is successful regional planning.

Wait, you might say. Successful regional planning in Atlanta, the land of sprawl? Yes. In fact, that landscape of sprawl is the purposeful creation of the Atlanta Regional Commission, chartered by the state in 1971 to coordinate the planning required to secure state and federal funding for the key infrastructural supports of growth: water and transportation. In both areas, the ARC managed information, planning, and political lobbying to create infrastructure that supported sprawl beyond Atlanta and Fulton County. This cemented a growth coalition that was not dependent on either the downtown business and financial leadership or the black political regimes that followed Maynard Jackson’s election. It also ensured that the demographics of Georgia shifted decisively. Instead of Atlanta becoming a dominant bloc in the legislature, its suburbs grew to hold significant power.

ARC was particularly effective in steering growth, Basmajian argues, by representing itself as an objective analyst of growth (presumably a natural process), and not as an advocate for any particular pattern. Technology was a key tool not only for planning, but more importantly for politics. In a section that should be eerily familiar to anyone concerned with the vogue for “big data” and “analytics” today, he demonstrates that the ARC constructed its 1976 Regional Development Plan with computer modeling, and stressed this fact as a source of credibility. This technology, at the cutting edge at the time,

reduced the complexity of a metropolitan region to a comparatively small set of variables, perhaps a necessary step in modeling complex social systems, [but] their popularity lay in their ability to provide seemingly precise, objective projections of the distribution of the population, employment, and land use at defined intervals of years with apparent objectivity (91).

The consequence, however, was a set of growth models that embedded faulty assumptions and prevailing conventional wisdom to “project” a demographic donut with a hollowed-out Atlanta at its center. This projection justified the formation of water and transportation planning to serve the edges of the donut,

privileging policies that matched projections of sprawling growth while hiding meaningful alternatives (86).


ARC and its 1976 RDP illustrate how federal policy merged with state and local politics to create a regional planning agenda marked by a self-fulfilling prophecy of sprawl (87).

This, as Basmajian ably shows, resulted in drastic changes not only in the region’s landscape, but in its political economy too. The book is well worth a read.


This Much Irony Might be Fatal

I have a talk to give on Friday at the Atlanta Studies Symposium about the 1990s tax revolt in Fulton County. I am seriously considering peeling off and relating the life story of Moreton Rolleston instead. He was a player in that tax revolt, though his significance as a figure in making present-day Atlanta is probably better summed up by his early days as a segregationist and the nearly unbelievable turn of events in his later life, a coincidence that is too amazing for me not to blog about it now. I suppose that for many Atlanta residents the climax of the story might be well-known fact, but I find it absolutely mind-blowing.

In 1964, Rolleston, the owner of the Heart of Atlanta Motel, filed suit immediately after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Rolleston was part of a semi-organized movement of businessmen who hoped to fight integration on the hill of private enterprise by claiming the right to operate a private business by serving whatever customers they chose. The United States Supreme Court said otherwise. Rolleston didn’t do too badly all things considered, as he sold his hotel for more than $11 million rather than be compelled to operate it on an integrated basis. I imagine that took some of the sting out.

Nonetheless, Rolleston was not done fighting the power on behalf of affluent white Atlantans, launching litigation against Fulton County tax reassessments in the early 1990s that rectified an effective tax subsidy for the county’s richest residents that resulted from longstanding underassessment of property. His North By Northwest Civic Association won in a lower court, but the Georgia Supreme Court upheld an appeal by Atlanta and Fulton County’s tax assessor. Once again, Rolleston lost a big battle.

But that was nothing compared to what lay in store….

Rolleston’s Buckhead home was seized to satisfy a legal malpractice judgment for a former client against Rolleston. The property was sold to the African American filmmaker Tyler Perry, who demolished Rolleston’s former house to build his new 30,000 square foot mansion. For reasons that Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter D.L. Bennett could only hint at, Rolleston sued Perry, claiming to be the true owner of the property. This aggressive litigation culminated in Rolleston’s disbarment at age 89 in 2007. I can only speculate about his motives, and Rolleston insisted he was the legal owner of the property to the end, but I can only imagine that seeing a ridiculously wealthy black man bulldoze his house to put up a significantly larger one was something that the segregationist crusader wouldn’t take lying down.

There’s a lot to dislike about Tyler Perry’s films, but if he goes down as the guy who drove Moreton Rolleston around the bend, that’s a point in his favor that not even another dozen Madea films can erase.


Bennett, D L. “22 Years of Twists, Turns for Tyler Perry’s Property.” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, September 26, 2007.

———. “Attorney Disbarred over Turf War Ending with Entertainer.” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, October 10, 2007.

———. “Fed up with Foe, Perry Files Lawsuit.” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, October 24, 2007.