How Much Is Race Affecting the Atlanta Elections?

I was sitting at the Department of Motor Vehicles when I was tagged in a tweet from an Atlanta newspaper. “Atlanta could elect its first white mayor in 44 years,” it says. “Would the character of the city change?”

I didn’t have enough information to say. In fact, I hadn’t even thought much about how a black mayor has actually shaped this city. How will a white mayor change things?

Seems like it shouldn’t matter. And yet, race politics has been a huge factor in Atlanta’s history.

No one wants to go back to the divided past.According to the linked article, the background is this: the last time Atlanta had a white mayor was 1969. The next election broke a 125-year streak of white-only mayors, when Atlanta elected its first black mayor: Maynard Jackson of the winning smile and demeanor.  

Over the next 10 years, there was  a classic case of what was called “white flight.” This brought a gigantic demographic and economic shift, not as a result of Jackson’s policies in particular, but because Atlanta was used as a petri dish of social and economic planning by Washington, D.C. 

Whites left and built cities outside the main/original city. Meanwhile, as time marched on and the demographics settled, a black establishment rose up to build Atlanta into one of the coolest, richest, most wonderful cities on the planet earth for everyone, including and most especially for blacks. Today, Atlanta is called the Black Hollywood.

Today, the emergent prosperity and thrilling ethos of the city are causing times to change again. Young white people have poured back in, renting apartments, starting businesses, living hipster lifestyles, and changing the voting demographics. Now it seems possible that Atlanta could get a white mayor. The significance, however, is mostly symbolic. No one wants to go back to the divided past.

How Much Does Race Matter?

If you think these questions are weird, go to the highest peak in Atlanta and look at the skyline. There are actually three skylines (downtown, midtown, and Buckhead), each representing a demographic shift that has taken place in the last half century. You can observe for yourself how people have hopped from place to place, seemingly moving here and there along racial lines.

Now, you might think: sure, that’s what people said. What does it all mean? I was in the ideal place to find out. I started asking around the DMV. I asked the people around me, the people in line, the clerks behind the desks, and the cops guarding the place. Everyone, blacks and whites, said exactly the same thing. It doesn’t matter. We have moved past that.

Now, you might think: sure, that’s what people said. But this is not what they actually believe. In today’s racially charged environment, everyone is prepared to lie, particularly to a stranger in a dark suit and bowtie. People will say what they are supposed to say, even while believing something very different.

It’s true that people do not speak frankly on the topic of race, simply because the issue is so fraught with controversy, has a deep and painful history, and is replete with code and taboos.

And yet I have no doubt people were telling me at least some version of the truth. The race of the mayor actually doesn’t matter. How can this be? How can race matter profoundly in the past but not in the future?

A History of Racial Politics in Atlanta

The answer lies in this extremely revealing map of the history of voting demographics by race in Atlanta from 1870 to the present.  

The first great disturbance doesn’t appear here: the burning of Atlanta in Sherman’s march to the sea. It was catastrophic for the city, both economically and politically. Following the Civil War, the city became the center of carpetbagging (a Republican Congress-authorized miliary occupation and pillaging of property) by the occupation forces that horribly mismanaged the city in every way, giving rise to blowback from a murderous Klan as well as the responding double blowback from anti-Klan forces.

Atlanta experienced a white flight as massive and transformative as the previous black flight. The unrelenting cycle of violence and unrest led to a first wave of “black flight” from the city, which was further intensified by decades of deeply wicked white rule, characterized by state segregation, racial zoning, Jim Crow laws that treated blacks as second class citizens, policing that had nothing to do with justice, and oppression of the merchant class that only wanted normalcy and commercial integration. Such laws were never more cruel than with the rise of eugenic policies that kept the races separate, imposed marriage licensing, created segregated schools, exclusionary labor policy, and attempted a level of demographic planning that amounted to an exterminationist policy administered by whites against blacks.

Blacks continued to flee so long as they faced such policies until after World War II, when a rising consciousness concerning human rights led to a swing in the other direction. But rather than just permitting freedom of association and equality under the law, policy gradually went the other way. There was the creation of a massive welfare state, public housing, forced integration, urban renewal, and mandatory busing of children from neighborhood to neighborhood, as well as affirmative action and a new form of racial privileging.

The result of these policies from the 1960s and 1970s was obvious in the voting demographics. Atlanta experienced a white flight as massive and transformative as the previous black flight. This was another blowback at work, as a new political establishment (ironically fueled by white socialist intellectuals and public sector bureaucrats from Washington) drove out the white middle class.  

This was, in turn, answered by the rise of the drug war and the “tough on crime” movements of the 1970s and 1980s, which directly targeted the black population with state violence and caused yet another round of black flight from the city.  

The up and down patterns are revealed in the long history. The chart shows striking lines, but these lines also represent terrible human tragedy on the part of both whites and blacks. The carnage was palpable and the wounds very deep.

The 21st Century

After this long and grim history, what we find in the 21st century is a much-welcome relief from this pattern of racial warfare that dates to the 19th century. Governments – local, state, and federal – found themselves fiscally restrained and intellectually unambitious. The fashion for social planning gradually diminished and came to be replaced by an ethos of commerce and prosperity first.  

Atlanta became a city of enterprise and commerce.The “benign neglect” was the best thing to happen to Atlanta in 150 years. Atlanta became a city of enterprise and commerce. Whole sections of the city were sold to private enterprise, and this continues to be the pattern. The intellectual ambition to either exclude or save the black population had evaporated, much to relief of the business community.

In the 1960s, the city’s slogan was “The city too busy to hate,” a beautiful phrase that signaled an ideology of cosmopolitanism and tolerance, and a rejection of the past of mutual recrimination. Today, the slogan is not as catchy but it is actually accurate: “Every day is opening day.” This is a reference to the incredible rate of business creation and growth in this wonderful center of enterprise and productivity. 

The Lesson

What lesson are we to draw from this long history? It is this: racial politics of all sorts ends up dividing the community, whether these efforts are malevolent or well-intended. Most regular people, regardless of race, face the same struggles and issues. No matter who is in charge, politically ambitious impositions ignore these real-world struggles in favor of ideological campaigns that interrupted people’s desire to get along.

Living in Atlanta makes it impossible to take seriously the claims of the extreme Left and the extreme Right.You know why if you think about your own life as it relates to race. You have an identity of which you are aware. It affects some, even many, of your associations. But it is not the whole of your life. It might matter intensely as regards your family, but in your commercial dealings, it matters least of all. At the same time, there are endless gradients of experience in which race matters more or less in an infinite spectrum of gray areas – and hence is far too complex to be successfully managed by some outside bureaucracy.

Precisely because government is less involved in race today than ever before, Atlanta is a paragon of multicultural, multiracial understanding and tolerance, to the maximum extent to which this is possible in a fallen world. You experience it in every store, restaurant, museums, houses of worship, and office buildings. You even sense it in the public bureaucracies.

Demagogues Be Gone

Living in Atlanta makes it impossible to take seriously the claims of the extreme Left and the extreme Right, both of which are invested in further racial division rather than the perpetuation of understanding among all peoples. It is a vibrant commercial sector that shows the way: our universal material interests are far more powerful than our racial identities. Here is the path forward for peace and mutually beneficial coexistence.

The people of Atlanta have a vision of future of peace, tolerance, integration, and mutual understanding.Every day, and in every way, the commercial life of the city is a tribute to the value people can offer each other regardless of race, which is to say, very simply, that people get along just fine so long as the politicians and the state stay out of it. We have a long history of racial division precisely because we haven’t always chosen the path of peace and commerce. We have chosen that path today, not perfectly but largely, and the beautiful results are all around us.

This is why the race of the mayor doesn’t really matter, and why none of the people I asked were willing to offer an ideologically vociferous opinion that it does. The reason is simple: the office of the mayor itself doesn’t much matter anymore. The people of Atlanta have a vision of future of peace, tolerance, integration, and mutual understanding. No one wants to go back to a failed model of the past.