City Power and Resistance in the Reagan Era

Cities have become a focus of hope and attention since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. Academic and non-academic urbanists, activists, and politicians have noted the eruption of large scale protest marches, smaller organized acts of resistance to anti-immigration measures, and declarations by municipal leaders of opposition to Trump initiatives to punish sanctuary cities. Beyond these actions, the tendency for cities to house large and diverse populations offers a symbolic rebuke of implicit and explicit white nationalism in the Trump base and administration. Cities, at risk of hyperbole, seem to be the best hope for preserving a diverse, inclusionary, and small-d-democratic society.

I’ve written about this before in an award-winning article prompted by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. I argued that with many legal limits on the volume of money in electoral politics ruled unconstitutional, it was crucial for anyone concerned with democratic participation to think hard about the next step. I challenged one strain of liberal response to Citizens United, the call for more small-donor contributions to advocacy organizations to balance out possible surges of corporate and individual cash (while also disputing a pillar of the liberal dissent in the decision, i.e. that “corporate” spending in politics was more corrosive to democracy than spending by rich individuals). Rather than fight a futile battle to outspend antidemocratic forces, those supporting an inclusionary and egalitarian society should look to cities as a class of corporation that, per the Citizens United decision, could (and should) exercise their own speech rights.

Not to toot my own horn but, in an essay that I began writing in 2010 (and had to keep revising to accommodate new anti-urban and anti-democratic developments) and finally saw in print in 2015 (thanks American Quarterly for your 18-month delay in sending it for review between 2012 and 2013!), I was kind of prescient. I noted, incorporating arguments made by law prof Heather Gerken, that cities as corporate bodies could exercise some small powers allotted to them by state governments to effectively engage in wide-ranging speech–what Gerken called “dissent by decision.” I used the examples of San Francisco’s explicitly declared sanctuary city policies (glad that issue’s gone away!) and Los Angeles’s decision not to spend municipal funds with Arizona firms in the wake of that state’s notorious “papers please” law entitling local law enforcement officers to demand proof of citizenship from brown suspicious people they stopped for traffic or because they felt like it other offenses (which has, since January 2017 evidently become federal policy). Indeed, the number of mayors, city councils, and other local officials denouncing aggressive ICE action has grown in proportion to the agency’s aggression against all  undocumented persons in the country, above and beyond a criminal minority.

Now, it’s important not to oversell “dissent by decision” and its impact. Municipal boycotts by themselves don’t change policy at the state or federal level. But they do spark deliberation and debate. And, as I argued, when they follow and are pushed by social movements, as by immigrants and their allies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, these actions establish clearly that immigrants have a stake in and are in fact parts of the cities they inhabit. The growth, vitality, and economic power of cities depends on their openness, with the corollary that urban leaders cannot simply ignore workers, taxpayers, students, parents, or consumers in their cities simply because they lack national citizenship (though of course some places that are legally incorporated as cities have done precisely this, under the influence of the national right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform/FAIR, sent up memorably by Samantha Bee this week, but I’m referring here to the larger, more diverse, complex places commonly connoted by the term “city”).

If I were writing that essay over again, I’d do a few things differently. I would probably not be so cavalier about the surge in Super PACs and “dark money” being simply the continuation of money politics by new means. The opacity of those organizations offer great potential for mischief, even if many rich individuals like Sheldon Adelson or Foster Friess pridefully advertise their individual financial backing of candidates and causes as ego displays. I’d also dispense a bit with some of my analysis of legal doctrine and political theory and go to more historical examples. What can we learn about successes and failures for this kind of urban and municipal intervention in national politics?

That’s why I’ve been interested in a report (full report here as .pdf, summary here) from the transit infrastructure advocacy group Jobs to Move America and the Center for Media and Democracy on the legacy of municipal anti-Apartheid protests in the Reagan era. As a small-town child, my knowledge of the anti-Apartheid movement was sadly limited to its symbolic representation in the wardrobe and set decoration of The Cosby Show. But the movement had been pushed to a level of visibility such that the General Electric corporation’s NBC network would allow an affluent and aspirational black family to tout it because of public action, including urban protests and boycott decisions by 92 municipal and 28 state governments that confronted the Reagan administration’s appeasement of Pretoria and earned harsh federal retaliation, embodied by efforts to withhold infrastructure funds from rebellious cities and to involve business and ideological groups opposed to boycotts in an alliance to push for legislation to limit local authority to engage in boycotts or related activities.

So what can we learn? The authors of Reagan vs. Cities note that pushback against municipal boycotts can, today as in the 1980s, take four main forms:

  1. Adopting national policy to deter independent actions by Congress, cities and states.
  2. Collaborating with the business lobby to oppose sanctions.
  3. Interpreting federal law to justify withholding federal funding from cities and states adopting sanctions and divestment policies.
  4. Actively organizing support for litigation to challenge city divestment and sanctions laws.

Suppressing local power to dissent works hand in hand with austerity politics. Justice Department analysts in the 1980s identified their most compelling rationale to block local divestment efforts in the fiscal responsibility of local governments. If making a stand against apartheid resulted in higher costs for contracts, it could be invalidated:

federal grantees were prohibited from adopting laws or procurement requirements that placed a “burden on competition” by either limiting the pool of bidders vying for a federally funded contract or by raising the price of the federally funded contract.

This points to a critical division in thinking about what cities are and their function in a democratic society. Are they vehicles for residents to participate in political debate, or simply service delivery systems? While no one would doubt that cost is a concern for municipal contracting, it is far from the only one.

Among the more than 250 pages of primary documents reproduced in the .pdf of the report are memoranda showing the emerging influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council as a broker between business interests and state legislatures, influence that has only increased and has been reflected in a host of efforts by state governments to preempt local decisionmaking. It’s also worth knowing that ALEC is already strategizing against urban resistance to its agenda, not only engineering state-level preemption of city legislation on environmental, wage, civil rights, and immigration issues, but seeking to seed city halls with copacetic politicians, as Nicholas Ricciardi notes (AP, here as published in San Francisco Chronicle):

The city council project is the brainchild of Jon Russell, a councilman from the Virginia town of Culpepper, population 18,000. He was dissatisfied that the traditional, nonpartisan municipal groups, like the National League of Cities, seemed to constantly think more government was the answer to problems.

“Now we can communicate with 2,500 elected officials across the country that we know share our values and push back against some of the progressivism that’s gotten into cities,” Russell said.

Though the group is still young, it’s notched some significant accomplishments – most prominently helping distribute model legislation to end the automatic deduction of union dues from paychecks that 12 Kentucky counties implemented in 2014 as a precursor to that state becoming the 28th “right-to-work” state.

The American City County Exchange also distributes model legislation on everything from a taxpayer bill of rights that would require a supermajority to raise property taxes to measures requiring that cities explore all available materials to build sewer pipelines. An official at the city council project, Bruce Hollands, is head of the PVC pipe association.

Perhaps the best indicator of the growing role of cities in encouraging democratic action is the extent to which reactionary elements have rallied to control what cities do.

Tom Price and Metropolitics

First, off, regrets for the delay between starting this post when Tom Price’s appointment was news and publishing it today, when no one in the media has got time for Tom Price at all. Just pretend that Russia, Exxon, and the Electoral College don’t exist and that Tom Price still matters. Because he most certainly does, if you plan to get Medicare or Medicaid or have paid taxes on the premise that your payments might entitle you to partake of those social services someday.

(Ahem)

Most of the attention paid to Donald Trump’s naming of Georgia Congressman Tom Price as his prospective Secretary of Health and Human Services has focused on Price’s adamant opposition to the Affordable Care Act and social services in general.

Amy Goldstein and Philip Rucker reported in the Washington Post that Price is a loyal Trumpist, a foe of Obamacare, birther-curious, and, perhaps most importantly,

supports major changes to both Medicaid and Medicare, health insurance pillars of the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Under his vision, both programs would cease to be entitlements that require them to provide coverage to every person who qualifies. Instead, like many House Republicans, he wants to convert Medicaid into block grants to states – which would give them more latitude from federal requirements about eligibility rules and the medical services that must be covered for low-income Americans. This plan would also require “able-bodied” applicants to meet work requirements in order to receive health care benefits — an idea that the Obama administration has consistently rebuffed.

No doubt, all of those concerns are legitimate and important. I echo all of them. But I think it’s worth pointing out that where Price is coming from is important; his extremism on social services reflects not simply fiscal conservatism but also a politics of (sometimes) veiled (and sometimes not) racial resentment formed in (but hardly unique to) post-1970s metro Atlanta. And, as I’ll discuss below, Price’s brand of politicized racial resentment has been disguised as principled concern for the fate of democracy with the help of words attributed to, but most likely never written by, a Scottish Enlightenment scholar of little significance outside of That Uncle’s email forwards and, unfortunately, the United States Congress.

By happy coincidence, I’ve published some articles about the part of metro Atlanta that contains Price’s 6th Congressional District. As I noted recently, Price won a landslide re-election hand in hand with an overwhelming vote for Trump in his district. North suburban Atlanta, hardly a bastion of the working class (white or otherwise), was the type of affluent and educated area strategists expected to swing to Clinton. The vote monkeywrenched Clinton’s predicted win in Georgia into something the Georgia Bulldogs might choke up in a big game against ‘Bama.

Here’s the map of the district.

6th Congressional District of Georgia

6th Congressional District of Georgia

While many national Democrats were looking toward Fairfax County, Virginia as a model of a winning Clinton coalition of post-partisan educated professionals and service workers horrified by Trump (and post-election analysts like Matt Karp have compellingly argued the narrowness of that vision), north Fulton didn’t act like Fairfax. Which reflects the region’s relatively recent history.

Note that Price’s district contains all or part of several cities incorporated within the last 12 years, including Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Milton in Fulton County, and Dunwoody in DeKalb County. The story of those incorporations, while spun by proponents as an effort to achieve accountable, efficient, and responsive local government ostensibly denied by the county governments that previously served the areas, is, I’ve argued, part of a broader campaign to shield affluent and majority-white suburban areas from political control, and specifically control of property taxes, by Black elected officials or elected officials accountable to Black constituents.

This is partly evident in the fact that the local governments established by recent incorporations have been neither honest nor inclusive, though they have been notable for their roster of white elected officials.

from "New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race", Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

from “New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race”, Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

Now, I would avoid characterizing the drive for incorporation as a product of simple bigotry. It’s impossible to know the mindset of residents, those who voted for or against creating new cities, and the officials they elected to govern them. However, it is possible to understand the particular ways in which suburban governments operate as instruments to defend property rights and values and to hoard economic resources embodied in real estate against claims made by those residing outside the local boundary. It’s further possible to understand, as New Regionalist scholars have, that metropolitan areas are substantially integrated economies, despite extensive political fragmentation. It’s finally possible to understand that social processes, notably housing segregation, income inequality, and racial discrimination can work to place people in particular parts of the metropolitan area, while political fragmentation creates different levels of access to resources.

Accordingly, there is a profound connection between racism, property value, and the stakes of local politics. As Atlanta’s northern suburbs began to boom in the 1960s, and the city of Atlanta sought to annex some of them, the prospect of Black elected officials making decisions involving taxing suburban property and spending the proceeds fueled movements for defensive incorporation. Suburban voters fought Atlanta’s city government to a stalemate over annexation, until a movement for suburban municipal incorporation emerged, gaining considerable momentum from a 1991 property tax revolt.

A substantial irony of the tax revolt was that the property of many of these suburbanites had been grossly undertaxed for years. As I wrote in the Journal of Urban History, drawing on contemporary public sector economists’ analysis of late 1980s and early 1990s tax receipts, the market value of north suburban property was galloping ahead of tax appraisals and, accordingly, tax assessments were lagging far below levels mandated by state law. This was not a racially innocent process. As Kevin Kruse has most notably observed, Atlanta’s housing market had, since the desegregation of Atlanta’s city schools, created a premium for property in mostly white communities. Further, following Paula Ioanide’s discussion of affective economies, many white Atlantans’ perceptions of positive use value (aka “quality of life”) in their suburban communities has hinged on whiteness, adding an additional set of political stakes around both integration and local control, with the facially race-neutral values of good schools and quality of life dominant in public discussions.

Despite the evidence that many north Fulton homeowners had received a double whiteness dividend (increased property value plus a tax discount), when Fulton County conducted a countywide reappraisal to put the tax rolls in line with the market, those homeowners rebelled, with both Black County Commissioners and countywide public services (notably, for the purposes of our discussion, Grady Hospital, which serves the poor of Atlanta and Fulton County) taking the heat.

In my article, I identified a key conflict around social services. Embattled County Commission Chair Michael Lomax, who was nearly recalled in a 1991 petition campaign, attacked the perception that Atlanta’s public services were a benefit only to Atlanta’s poor residents and an unjustified burden to others, specifically arguing in a May, 1991 Commission meeting that while metro Atlanta residents outside of Atlanta enjoyed the benefits of the institutions and infrastructure paid for by the city and county, outlying areas were not contributing adequately to maintaining those facilities, including the care for the indigent provided at Grady. Other commissioners were more blunt, insinuating that racial animosity inspired austerity.

Things were probably not quite that simple, but in the context of a sudden tax reassessment, affluent white homeowners were quick to shift responsibility from their previous free ride to the presumed wastefulness of public services. A year after the 1991 tax revolt, a north Fulton realtor named Mark Burkhalter launched a political career that would take him to the state legislature by leading LOGTAX (Lower Our Grady Taxes), a group that openly framed the public hospital as a rip-off of north Fulton taxpayers. One of LOGTAX’s mailers presented a leading True/False quiz, which included such “questions” as “North Fulton homes are unfairly taxed for a hospital that doesn’t serve them.” The questions were misleading on a number of levels. As Creative Loafing (Atlanta’s longstanding alt-weekly) notes in a brief history of the politics of Grady Hospital, the facility in fact does serve residents of the entire metropolitan area through its trauma center, though its image as a facility for the black and poor obscures it:

When he first started working as a paramedic, Lunney remembers the stigma certain Atlantans attached to the hospital. He recalls instances in which affluent people such as a “soccer mom from Alpharetta” involved in a car crash on I-75/85 would “flip” at the suggestion of going to Grady, despite the fact that the level-one trauma center offered the best possible care.

Grady’s service to the whole region works indirectly, too. The indigent receive care there, making the for-profit facilities in the region more profitable, allowing middle-class Atlantans to afford private health care by shunting the cost of caring for the poor off the books, and benefitting the not insubstantial number of homeowning doctors and healthcare executives in north Fulton County. One of the ironies of Grady’s recent history is the extent to which local private hospitals panicked at Grady’s financial problems, fearing that they might be forced to absorb them. This proved to be of little consequence in the political arena, however, where aggrieved taxpayers and their spokespersons could make hay.

As the tax revolt matured and institutionalized within the Fulton County Republican Party, north Fulton tax hawks readily embraced a theory that Black elected officials were using the public budget for redistribution and racially-motivated reparations against white homeowners. I describe the response of a local reactionary columnist to the 1991 recall of Lomax, which evinces a particularly racialized take on taxing and spending:

Dick Williams likewise accused [Commission Chair Michael] Lomax of “playing the racial card,” asking “where is the racism in struggling for breath after finding a 100 percent or more property re-evaluation?” In the very same column, however, Williams blamed black politicians and voters for the crisis. Since “a greater percentage of whites own homes and businesses,” he wrote, “black lawmakers are freer to lay the tax burden off on people who didn’t vote for them anyway.”

If this formulation sounds familiar, it should. The idea that using the institutions of representative democracy to meet the needs of the largest number of people is not only improper but fatal to democracy itself is a contemporary favorite. Its purest form is reflected in this meme:

At about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution, in the year 1787, Alexander Tyler (a Scottish history professor at The University of Edinborough) had this to say about “The Fall of The Athenian Republic” some 2,000 years prior:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”

“The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From Bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage.”

In case That Uncle ever sends you this over email or posts it to social media, I will suggest as a service a few critical approaches to rebuttal. We could, as historians, nitpick the neat teleology of progression from “Bondage” to “Abundance” and back again, or the blatant artificiality of a two-century rule for civilizational collapse, or note that the parties in bondage tended to stay that way under Anglo-American settler government. We could even question whether the failure to consider warfare as a contributing factor to Athenian decline calls into question Tytler’s knowledge of shit from shinola. We could, as political scientists, be astounded at how Tytler’s quotation utterly mistakes the extent to which the Constitution purposefully separates the citizenry from the treasury. Think Electoral College. Think whether your vote counts as much as your Congressman’s. Think about what would happen if you demanded trillions of dollars to build an F-35 in your garage. Think about every Gadsden Flag waver who ever brayed “it’s a republic, not a democracy.” I think we’re actually safe from the masses voting themselves Obamaphones. We could, as rhetoricians, note the use of anachronistic phrases like “loose fiscal policy” that, with these other analytical errors, contribute to the propounding of a historical doctrine coincidentally suited to the exact needs of Tea Party conservatives today.

And, we could wonder why, if this Alexander Tytler was so goddamn smart and important, nobody’d ever heard of him until the invention of the email forward. Indeed, it appears that while an Alexander Tytler did exist, his authorship of scholarship on Athenian democracy is, to say the least, lacking in evidentiary support:

The “Alexander Tyler” quoted at the head of the article is actually Lord Woodhouselee, Alexander Fraser Tytler, a Scottish historian/professor who wrote several books in the late 1700s and early 1800s. However, there is no record of a Tytler’s having authored a work entitled The Fall of the Athenian Republic (or The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic), and the quoted material attributed to him above is likely apocryphal.

Would it surprise you to learn that Ronald Reagan was an important figure in catapulting this bit of propaganda into our collective consciousness? If it does, you should read Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge as soon as possible (though the fact that the Trump campaign could have used it as a how-to manual is distressing).  Their historical fraudulence notwithstanding, the words attributed to Tytler have been mouthed with disturbing frequency by Republicans in Congress, usually while advocating policies of upward wealth redistribution (and often after having been forwarded the quote by a constituent!).

I’m just not lucky enough that Tom Price himself ever read this quote into the Congressional Record– although his Republican colleague Mark Sanford (whose judgment is unquestionable) did, in a debate on the FY 2015 budget for which Price was the Republican leader. Here’s Sanford’s conclusion:

Ultimately, what I think that this budget is about is avoiding that very bondage that that historian and many others have talked about over the years.

To sum up, then: Mark Sanford thinks the federal budget should be written based on the fabricated musings of a non-expert on ancient Athens, who, even had he offered comment on that democracy’s failure, made no observations of republican government in the United States or anywhere else in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries. The case is airtight.

And, if Price never offered the Tytler quote, he certainly channeled its spirit in his own remarks in the same session:

Remember, Mr. Chairman—the American people know this—every dollar that is taken for taxes and every dollar that is borrowed, stealing from the next generation, is a dollar that can’t be used to pay the rent, to buy a car, to buy a home, to send a kid to college, to open a business or to expand a business and create jobs. We think there is a better way.

Social expenditure is theft, from the deserving (you) to the undeserving (them). But, to make it sound less like whining and more like principle, Price and his colleagues have continued to dress this essentially political mantra in the universalist robe of obscure enlightenment figures to make Obamacare, or Medicaid, or SNAP the equivalent of an attack on democracy itself and the supporters of such programs the equivalent of the Barbarians.

Even when Tytler isn’t dragged into it, the formula jumps up repeatedly. It echoed in Rick Santelli’s call for a Tea Party to protest a tiny proposal for mortgage relief, aptly described by Ian Haney Lopez as a dog-whistle of group antagonism:

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, 2013)

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, 2013)

Paul Ryan turned the Tytler formula around to pretend to care about poor people’s own good, calling social services a “hammock” that could trap people in poverty by eroding their self-reliance. The Tytler formula animated the Tea Party attack on the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, suggesting a tidal wave of moochers threatening the Republic. And, in a March 2010 debate over legislation that would become the Affordable Care Act so loathed by Tom Price, Republican Congressman Tom Posey of Florida (a birther whose professional life has unfolded in the federally supported industries of aerospace and real estate) trotted it out once more, though this time not even bothering to attribute it to anyone, noting “it has been said….”

So, this fabricated quotation from a figure of no authority on modern governance is so entrenched in the culture of right-wing Washington as to hardly require attribution, let alone critical reflection on its merits as a guide to policy. But, it’s core premises are also deeply entrenched in metropolitics, where the politics of taxing and spending are just as contentious but often more immediate.

As I’ve argued in another article (available through Journal of Urban Affairs) that links the tax revolt to prior and subsequent politics of suburban separatism in north Fulton County, the racialized tax politics of the 1990s were critical to building political support for incorporating Sandy Springs in 2005, which sparked a wave of new cities formed in the next decade and was part of a campaign to split north Fulton from Fulton County, which would have substantial benefits for wealthy north Fulton residents and dire consequences to the (poorer and majority-Black) remainder of the county. As I wrote,

As the near absolute segregation of [north Fulton] has receded in the new century, so have overtly racial declarations of community interest given way to public appeals to efficiency, local control, and privatization as rationales for Sandy Springs’s political independence. Yet, black voters and officeholders remain the prime symbol of threat to the interests of white homeowners and taxpayers, who seek, as their predecessors did, to organize political space to avoid the influence of black officials and common obligations to black fellow citizens.

Throughout, the theme of zero-sum conflict was sounded. As I wrote, no one in Atlanta politics exemplified this better than attorney and anti-tax activist Robert Proctor, described by a local columnist as “Rush Limbaugh with a law license.” Proctor’s rhetoric merged the concepts of social services as theft and black political leadership as an illicitly race-conscious enterprise:

Proctor, described as “Atlanta’s Rush Limbaugh with a legal license” (Pendered, 1994a), became the director of the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF), and initiated a series of lawsuits that demonstrate the deep intersections of the tax revolt and white political grievances. Proctor and SLF challenged affirmative action policies of the City of Atlanta, the Atlanta and Fulton County school systems, DeKalb County, and Grady Memorial Hospital, as well as Atlanta’s policy of extending health benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees (Campos, 1999; Helton, 1996). Proctor frequently described affirmative action as reverse discrimination, arguing “the playing field has been leveled for at least 30 years [but now] is being made unequal” (Kimbrough & Daniels, 1997) to the detriment of taxpayers. Proctor only implicitly identified “taxpayers” as white, but was willing and eager to identify their oppressors as black. Interviewed in 1994, he argued that Atlanta’s black political leadership, when not busy being “wasteful of taxpayer dollars” and “trad[ing] political favors with each other,” raised the cry of racism to shield themselves from criticism. Proctor further dismissed arguments for government programs to aid black businesses or employment, asking, “Should we take 50 percent of the wealth of white America and … pay reparations, as some of them are urging? When does it end? I think … if we’re truly interested in dealing with quote, unquote, racism … we need to stop talking about race all the time’” (Applebome, 1994). Although Proctor identified black politicians and, indeed, African Americans generally, as his adversaries, he nonetheless framed his own position as the race-neutral one (saying “I’m not a member of the Ku Klux Klan”), insisting that minorities were responsible for racial strife.

Public expenditures took from us to give to them, on the sole basis of them commanding more votes. The necessary rhetorical step is to turn democratic outcomes (and Democratic victories) into attacks on democracy; they’re not content to just take your taxes, they’re trying to take your freedom.

So, to summarize and bring thing back to the present. We can understand a bit more what’s driving Tom Price if we can understand the specifically metropolitical context of his career. The Fulton County Republican Party, mobilized around property taxes, became a key bloc in an ascendant conservative and suburban Republican caucus in the legislature that thrived not only by preaching austerity, but by specifically attacking Black-serving institutions like public hospitals. Rather than providers of key services, they were corrupt vehicles for self-dealing, wasting taxpayer money to give others something for nothing.

This is the context in which Tom Price, representing north Fulton County, became the Georgia Senate Majority Leader in 2002 before jumping to fill Johnny Isakson’s open Congressional seat in 2005. If you are looking for principles that might predict Price’s actions as HHS Secretary, “screw them, we’ve got ours” is probably as good a place as any to start.

Special Virtual Issue of Journal of Urban Affairs

A quick note during a week when there’s not much else to talk about. My article Metropolitan Secession and the Space of Color-Blind Racism in Atlanta has been included in an accessible virtual online issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs on “Immigration, Ethnicity, and Race in the City” (or in my case, the metropolitan county).

Here’s the abstract:

The Reverend Joseph Lowery and the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus sponsored a 2011 voting rights suit, Lowery v. Deal, that demanded the disincorporation of several majority-white cities in Georgia’s Fulton and DeKalb Counties and preemption against attempts by affluent and majority-white north Fulton to secede from the rest of the county. Secession would have severe consequences for racial equity in the metropolitan area. Lowery’s 2011 dismissal by the District Court reflects ascendant color-blind racial ideology that defends white privilege in metropolitan space by attributing it to culturally and legally legitimate race-neutral processes. Historical analysis challenges this color-blind interpretation, identifying the nominally class-based interests of north Fulton residents with systemic racial discrimination and the politics of secession with historic patterns of spatial politics that have sought not only to exclude but also to manipulate political space to limit the ability of black voters and officials to make decisions affecting whites and their property.

Although I’m sure anyone reading this has had their fill of election analysis, and academic writing moves slowly, I think that there is one key element in my article that resonates with the shocking (or perhaps not so shocking) results of Tuesday’s voting. I highlight the vehemence with which many affluent suburban whites insist on the one hand that their political behavior is not about race (and indeed fixing blame for racism on minority leaders) while on the other hand taking extraordinary measures to prevent Black voters from influencing decisions affecting their property and avoid participating in a political commonwealth with Black people. Maybe that sounds familiar.

For whatever it’s worth, compare the county-level map of Georgia with the results of Congressional races (a precinct level map would be better, and maybe I’ll update with one later). At the larger scale, it seems like Metro Atlanta is a bastion of Clinton support, which makes the final 51.3-45.6 percent Trump margin (231,323 votes) seem inexplicable in a state many talked about flipping blue.

But if you look at the results of several congressional races in metro Atlanta districts, you’ll see the region is starkly cleaved on an east-west line separating strong Dem and strong GOP seats that also roughly tracks the geography of support for suburban secession.

In District 6, which includes much of north Fulton, Tom Price defeated his Democratic challenger by 61.6-38.4 percent (more than 72,000 votes). Adding up the Republican margins in districts 6, 7, and 11 on the north side of metro Atlanta yields a total advantage of 244,672 votes (bigger than Trump’s statewide margin). Assuming most congressional voters cast ballots by party preference for the presidency, that means that Trump won Georgia in significant part by dominating the white suburbs of Atlanta. I’d also heartily recommend Carol Anderson’s White Rage, which remains as relevant and important a work as ever.

A coda to my article. Voters in south Fulton County yesterday approved a ballot measure to pursue incorporation as a city, which would pretty much complete the municipalization of Fulton County. A few brief points: while South Fulton would be poorer and have more Black residents than any of the north Fulton cities I discuss, this does not support the idea that cityhood and fragmentation give desired local control to all communities on an equal footing. I’d say it’s much more likely that south Fulton voters recognized the degree to which Fulton County has been weakened as a service providing government by the incorporations of wealthy areas in the north (and of the more affluent Chattahoochee Hills area in the south) and the risk of incorporating later after existing municipalities annexed valuable land. Going forward, different parts of Fulton County will be using the same tools of local government but with vastly different resources at their disposal.

Flint Water Protests hit Lansing

The Flint Water Crisis reflects a progression of what I’ve written about, more theoretically than empirically, in my American Studies article on urban democracy in the age of austerity and money politics. Michigan’s emergency manager law, which represents a difference of degree rather than kind among state actions to limit urban home rule and public democracy, has enabled bottom-line decision-making that risked the health of Flint residents to save relatively trivial amounts of money in the city’s water service. These decisions were made in the absence of locally accountable elected officials, but Flint residents are not going to let the story end there. Protests have hit the state capitol in Lansing, demanding the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder, the champion of the state’s emergency manager law.

The Daily Show has jumped on this in a way that highlights the fundamental cruelty of the cost-cutting decision, though it doesn’t address the emergency management element of the story.

It’s worth mentioning that the emergency manager who made the decision to switch Flint’s water supply from Detroit’s Lake Huron water to the Flint River has been recently named the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.

Annual Self-Promotion

As I return from the holidays, I’ve noticed two stories in the news that I just happen to have written about in the past year.

The first of these comes from Flint, Michigan. I’ll refer you to Andrew Highsmith’s Demolition Means Progress for the definitive history of that community and the connections between housing, schools, industry, and institutional racism that have created much of the city’s current state of crisis, which today manifests in the form of acute lead poisoning from the city’s water supply. This poisoning is a direct result of decisions made by appointed emergency managers to draw the city’s drinking water from the Flint River in order to realize a cost savings by withdrawing from a service contract with Detroit’s water utility. Corrosive industrial wastes in the river water have caused lead from antiquated pipes to leach into the water supply, resulting in drastically elevated blood lead levels, particularly in the city’s children.

This is bad enough in itself. But what’s worse is the rapidly mounting evidence that a series of emergency managers and Governor Rick Snyder, who appointed them, ignored both qualitative complaints by residents of bad taste, foul odor, and rashes caused by contact with the water, and quantitative measurements of lead contamination. If statements made by high-ranking Michigan officials are true, the prioritization of cost-savings over public health are reckless indeed.

Jim Lynch of the Detroit News reports:

Dennis Muchmore, Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, was quoted in a July 22 Department of Health and Human Services email expressing concern about the handling of the water crisis, according to documents obtained by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards through open records requests.

“I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint,” Muchmore wrote in an email exchange. “I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from the (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) samples. … These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

Despite such concern at the highest levels of Michigan government, lower-level officials continued to downplay the severity of Flint’s drinking water problems for almost three more months. It would take until mid-October for DEQ’s top official to admit mistakes were made and for Flint to be switched back to a different water source.

….

In August, evidence would begin to surface of rising levels of lead in the blood of Flint’s children. It wasn’t until October that Snyder’s administration moved to switch the industrial city’s water source back to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Lake Huron from the corrosive Flint River.

 

I wrote about the anti-democratic nature of emergency management in an article published by American Studies last spring. I didn’t focus on Flint, but did note the ways that state legislatures have advanced austerity and the hollowing of the public sphere in direct conflict with urban democracy. In Flint, the stakes are as high as life and death.

The second story of note is the re-introduction of legislation in Georgia, as House Resolution 964, to amend the state’s constitution to allow Atlanta’s northern suburbs to separate from Fulton County and form Milton County, breaking away from the poorer and majority-Black city and South Fulton. Rep. Brad Raffensperger of Johns Creek has written his proposal to limit the amendment to allowing the re-creation of a formerly existing county, which would allow north Fulton to separate without enabling a rush of secession movements in other counties (Milton County merged with Fulton County in 1931 while facing financial ruin). The proposal contains some wiggle room in that it requires only “generally similar” boundaries, which would allow parts of Sandy Springs below the Chattahoochee River to also secede, so it’s clear that this reverence for the old Milton County, which was impoverished and rural rather than today’s gilded exurb, is simply a matter of political convenience.

Similar legislation has been a perennial symbolic gesture that has failed to gain sufficient support, but north Fulton legislators who keep introducing it are tapping into deep discontent from their affluent constituents. I’ve argued (in the Journal of Urban Affairs) that this discontent is rooted in systemic racism in the region, and laid out (in the Journal of Urban History) the ways that a 1991 tax revolt crystallized white suburban anger at Black political leadership as a perennial source of discontent.

It should be noted, as Arielle Kass at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes, that Raffensperger also pre-filed legislation to double Fulton County’s property tax homestead exemption, which would drastically reduce county revenues. This is, of course, of a piece with a broader conservative north Fulton political agenda: delegitimize Fulton County government, limit its scope with fiscal restrictions, and foment political polarization while privatizing services in the northern half of the county. If secession fails, then the rest of the agenda–insulating the property of north Fulton residents from decisions made by Atlanta and south Fulton voters–remains intact.

“Metropolitan Secession” Now With a Volume-Issue Designation and Page Numbers

It’s the same article that appeared in advance online print a year ago, but I gather that some people find a volume/issue designation and in-series pagination to add to the already scintillating excitement of a journal article. Kinda like flames painted on the side of a Volvo station wagon.

So, I present, in final published version,

Connor, Michan Andrew. “Metropolitan Secession and the Space of Color-Blind Racism in Atlanta.” Journal of Urban Affairs 37, no. 4 (2015): 436–61. doi:10.1111/juaf.12101.
Available to those with subscriber access at
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/juaf.12101/
Enjoy!

New Article: “Race, Republicans, and Real Estate: The 1991 Fulton County Tax Revolt”

I’m happy to share the news that this article has just been accepted for publication in the Journal of Urban History.

Here’s the abstract:

A 1991 reappraisal of property in Atlanta and Fulton County, Georgia corrected systemic inequalities in property taxation that had subsidized affluent whites during a boom period. Many of those homeowners responded to reassessment by initiating a major tax revolt. The tax revolt failed to stop reassessment, but won lasting victory in the political arena. Tax revolt politicians successfully linked the economic grievances of taxpayers to resentments against black political leaders and the poor, replaced older, moderate suburban politics with confrontation, and sped partisan realignment and Republican ascendancy in the state. Historical perspective on the politics of the Fulton County tax revolt supports the conclusion that metropolitics were essential to the development of “color-blind” or “laissez-faire” forms of racial ideology that became dominant mode of American racial discourse in the post-civil rights era.

You can link to a .pdf of the submitted version here.

MConnorRaceRepublicansRealEstateJUH7-9-15