The End of Black Politics As We Knew It: Will Atlanta's Next Mayor Be White? Should We Even Care?

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

36 years of black Atlanta mayors have given birth to a thriving and empowered class of black managers, attorneys and contractors. But even after moving tens of thousands of poor blacks who once lived in public housing to areas beyond the city limits, fully one third of black Atlanta remains below the poverty level, making Atlanta number 5 in black poverty among the 40 largest US cities, according to current US Census data. So have the generation of black mayors and the crew that brought them in really done African Americans that much good?

The End of Black Politics As We Knew It: Will Atlanta's Next Mayor Be White? Should We Even Care?

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

The unfortunate answers are maybe, and maybe not.

The 1973 election of Maynard Jackson was supposed to be a great victory, among the first tangible fruits of the fifties and sixties Freedom Movement. The days of marching and striking and demonstrating and boycotting and defying unjust laws, black leaders told anybody who would listen, were over. It was time for those among us who were prepared by virtue of their educations, resumés, good suits and connections, to move into the corporate boardrooms that were now ready to accept them, and the political offices they could now be voted into. The mass movement which opened up those doors was disbanded and sent home. Collective action was to be a thing of the past, except for voting and patronizing black businesses.

Guaranteeing the prosperity of the black business class and the black elite, so the gospel went, was the indispensable key to the uplift of entire black communities. Because he assumed office at the beginning of Atlanta's mega-airport construction project, Maynard Jackson was in a better position to prove this theory of black economic uplift than the first generation of black mayors in places like Newark or Gary or Cleveland. Jackson retained a visionary purchasing exec who skillfully leveraged mayoral power to spawn more than twenty new black millionaires in the first few years of his administration and lay the foundation for the thriving and empowered class of black contractors and professionals who dominate Atlanta's political life today.

After 36 years, the results of this experiment are in. It's a failure. Census data on black poverty rates in the 40 largest US cities reveal that the strategies of boosting black businesses, electing black officials, and locking in the prosperity of the black elite have done all those things without lifting black Atlanta any further out of poverty than cities like hard-hit Detroit or Chicago, which hasn't seen a black mayor since the eighties, and both of which have lower densities of black businesses than Atlanta. In 2008 33.6% of black Atlanta was below the federal poverty rate, a higher number than Philadelphia or Columbus, higher than Houston or Memphis, or Kansas City or even Detroit. Nationally, Atlanta ranks number 5 in black poverty behind Milwaukee, Cleveland, Long Beach and Portland.

Atlanta has this alarming rate of black poverty despite fifteen years of one of the nation's most aggressive efforts to bulldoze and clear lower income black neighborhoods. Early this year Atlanta became one of the nation's first cities to entirely eliminate its stock of public housing. While some former public housing residents remain inside the city limits, most observers believe multiple tens of thousands have been driven to the suburbs. In a pattern repeated across the country, states and cities are refusing to gather stats on the exact numbers of these mostly black urban refugees. Georgia Tech political science professors, Black Agenda Report has been told, who tried to track exact local numbers have been actively blocked by officials of the Atlanta Housing Authority.

Atlanta does however, lead the nation in two key indexes of poverty. At 7.8% the percentage of white Atlanta below the poverty level is the lowest of the 40 largest US cities, and the disparity between white and black poverty levels, at 4.3 to 1 is the greatest of the forty largest US cities. It seems that 36 years of rule by African American mayors representing the black business class have been great for white Atlanta, but not so good for African Americans.

rank Top 40 US cities by population, not including suburbs, arranged by black poverty rate. percentage of blacks below poverty line percentage of whites below poverty line ratio of black to white poverty
1 Milwaukee, Wis. 37.1% 14.2% 2.61
2 Cleveland, Ohio 36.8% 19.4% 1.9
3 Long Beach, Calif. 36.8% 19.4% 1.9
4 Portland, Ore. 36.1% 14.0% 2.58
5 Atlanta, Ga. 33.6% 7.8% 4.31
6 Fresno, Calif. 33.4% 17.8% 1.88
7 Chicago, Ill. 32% 10.9% 2.94
8 Detroit, Mich. 32.8% 31.8% 1.03
9 Columbus, Ohio 32.3% 15.4% 2.1
10 Philadelphia, Pa. 31% 15.0% 2.07
11 Kansas City, Mo. 31% 10.5% 2.95
12 Memphis, Tenn. 31.5% 10.2% 3.09
13 Seattle, Wash. 31.4% 9.7% 3.24
14 Oklahoma City, Okla. 29.7% 13.0% 2.28
15 Houston, Tex. 29.7% 17.9% 1.66
16 Austin, Tex. 28.8% 13.7% 2.1
17 Dallas, Tex. 28.8% 17.6% 1.64
18 San Francisco, Calif. 28.7% 9.4% 3.05
19 New Orleans, La. 28.2% 11.1% 2.54
20 Albuquerque, N.M. 27.4% 12.6% 2.17
21 Boston, Mass. 26% 14.4% 1.81
22 Nashville-Davidson, Tenn.2 26.8% 10.6% 2.53
23 Denver, Colo. 26.8% 16.3% 1.64
24 Fort Worth, Tex. 26.7% 14.8% 1.8
25 Sacramento, Calif. 26.2% 12.5% 2.1
26 Phoenix, Ariz. 25.9% 15.7% 1.65
27 Washington, DC 25.4% 9.1% 2.79
28 Los Angeles, Calif. 24.9% 15.8% 1.58
29 Baltimore, Md. 24.5% 13.6% 1.8
30 Indianapolis, Ind. 24.4% 11.9% 2.05
31 San Diego, Calif. 23.8% 11.5% 2.07
32 Tucson, Ariz. 23.6% 15.5% 1.52
33 San Antonio, Tex. 23.5% 16.0% 1.47
34 Las Vegas, Nev. 23.1% 9.4% 2.46
35 Jacksonville, Fla. 22.8% 8.2% 2.78
36 New York, N.Y. 21.7% 13.4% 1.62
37 Charlotte, N.C. 20.6% 7.5% 2.75
38 El Paso, Tex. 17.3% 27.4% 0.63
39 San Jose, Calif. 13.1% 9.2% 1.42
40 Louisville-Jefferson County, Ky.1 not available not available  

None of this is exactly a secret. Early voting in Atlanta began more than a week ago, and has remained at all time low levels. Despite the howls of anguish from parts of Atlanta's black elite over the possibility of a white mayor, Atlanta's black voters seem to have a hard time caring who wins this election. Businessman Aaron Turpeau, a longtime member of Atlanta's black elite, an early backer of Maynard Jackson and co-convenor of the Atlanta Black Leadership Forum, along with Rev. Joseph Lowery, commissioned a paper on whether it was even possible to galvanize support around an African American mayoral candidate, given what the paper admitted was widespread black disenchantment with the city's black political establishment. The paper concluded that Lisa Borders was the African American candidate with the best chance of winning, being endorsed by a large number of the city's old line black pastors and having received the most money from developers and other downtown interests of any black mayoral candidate. It recommended that the organization find a way to rally black support around her.

The campaign of Kasim Reed, the next ranking black candidate in the polls obtained the memo and made it public, hoping to damage Borders.  White commentators denounced it as “racist” for even hinting there could or ought to be such a thing as a “black agenda,” however that might be defined.  Black mayoral hopeful Lisa Borders joined in calling the memo and Turpeau's group as “racist,” pointedly returning his campaign contribution. But Lisa Borders, as well as the next leading mayoral candidate Kasim Reed, are equally complete products of the Jackson-Young-Campbell-Franklin schools of political influence and elite black power.

Borders comes from the family of a historic black Atlanta preacher of Daddy King's generation, the Rev. William Borders. Kasim Reed was Shirley Franklin’s campaign manager, a “civil rights” and employment lawyer for the corporate violators of civil and employment rights and a state senator the last six years. After voting to approve hundreds of new and renewed contracts to privatize agencies of state government, Kasim Reed discovered he wasn't a fan of privatization after all, just in time to get the Atlanta Labor Council's endorsement. Borders, like Bill Campbell and Shirley Franklin before her remains an enthusiastic privatizer. The white candidate Mary Norwood professes to be neutral on the subject.

Atlanta Progressive News, which has been the only source of ongoing news of the city's attempt to drive public housing residents, the homeless and the poor out of town, has endorsed Mary Norwood. Norwood has raised more cash than anybody in the race, and is said to be holding it for massive media buys in the final two weeks in an effort to win without a runoff. But even in a runoff election, with one white and one black candidate, and virtually all of white Atlanta behind Mary Norwood extending Atlanta's 36 year run of black mayors is an uncertain prospect at best. And it leads to an uncomfortable question: why bother?

As we put back in a 2006 Black Commentator article titled “Failure of the Black Misleadership Class

The cohort of black business people and politicians who pass for African American leadership is at an impasse, and so is the rest of black America.  Our leaders have failed to produce economic development models for inner cities and poor black enclaves that benefit the people who live there now.

Not only is the black leadership class unable to create jobs at living wages for the hundreds of thousands of black families that desperately need them, they can't even describe to the rest of America how such a thing might be done.  The black leadership class dares not acknowledge the acute shortage of low and moderate income housing, or publicly question programs like HOPE VI which exacerbate that shortage.  The black leadership class have proven powerless to prevent the nationwide imposition of separate and grossly unequal education, the disastrous application of high-stakes testing and the use of "No Child Left Behind" to discredit and defund public education.  African American business and political leaders even lack the political imagination to rally their constituencies against the growth of a racially selective crime control and prison industry that has criminalized an entire generation of black youth, with far-reaching economic and social consequences.

We think Aaron Turpeau and the authors of the memo were right about a few things.  An African American community, with different circumstances of law, economics and life exists in Atlanta and there is nothing wrong with members of that community seeking to act together in their own interests.  We would disagree with Brother Turpeau about what those interests are and what shape that action ought to take. 

The people at Atlanta Progressive News, in their endorsement of Norwood and denunciations of the policies of the Franklin and previous city administrations also make a lot of sense when they show how deeply implicated in those policies Borders and Reed are.  But if Mary Norwood ever stood up for Grady Hospital, for poor residents uprooted by BeltLine gentrification, or against privatization in the public schools or the hundred other places it's being negotiated, we'd have read about it in APN.  We didn't.  So Mary Norwood may be a foe of Reed and Borders, but that does not make her a friend of Atlanta's poor and near-poor, who remain, after 36 years of rule by the black business class, mostly black. 

It seems that Atlanta's black elite, like the black business class nationwide, have no solutions for the problems facing the black masses. Though they are unable and/or unwilling to stop gentrification or privatization they know very well how to profit from these trends. A generation of their leadership has left the black poor poorer and more numerous than ever. Atlanta as the Black Mecca is over and so are black politics as we knew them. 

A new black agenda based on the collective interests of a broader segment of the African American community must soon take the place of black business class political domination, along with some new forms of concerted, collective action to press that agenda home. 

Bruce A. Dixon lives in metro Atlanta and is managing editor at Black Agenda Report.  He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com