Back in 2009 there was a palpable fear sweeping through Atlanta’s political establishment. A confluence of economic and demographic shifts raised, for the first time in generation, the specter that Atlanta may have a White mayor. And even more frightening, that White mayor may be a Conservative. This fear sprang forth from the political truism that Atlanta was and would forever be a “Chocolate City”. After all, since the election of Maynard Jackson as mayor in 1974, Atlanta has always had a Black Democratic mayor. This is the city of “Sweet Auburn” and the AUC. This is the city of Outkast and FreakNik. This is the city Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis and Joseph Lowery. This is the shining city on the hill, the city too busy to hate.
Many feared that this new threat of a white mayor would signal the end Black control of city politics and would place the Black community at risk of being forgotten and exploited. Pundits and writers openly feared that the White Republican mayor would invest hundreds of millions of dollars into building a trolley car that only served affluent white areas or build a beltline that was only safe to use in white neighborhoods. People feared that a White mayor would tear down black historical landmarks like churches built by slaves to serve white corporate interest like building new stadiums. The community feared that a White mayor would push gentrification as some form of progress while pushing the poor and black underclasses into the shadows of shining new skyscrapers built for the super-rich.
The fear was that low-income housing would disappear and be replaced by high end condos and that public transportation would become an afterthought leaving low income communities isolated from jobs and educational opportunities further widening the socioeconomic divide in an already rigidly casted city. Just imagine the horrors of a White Republican mayor run city. Homeless shelters would close so that developers could convert the land into cafes and eateries. Police and prosecutors would treat young black men as an infestation to be eradicated instead of our cities future. And worse of all, the rich Black cultural legacy would we whitewashed and replaced with the shimmering veneer of a “New” Atlanta. No longer the ATL of Box Chevys and Civil Right, but rather, the Atlanta of corporate tourist location, chain restaurants and a soulless amalgam of attractions with no connection to the Atlanta that once was.
Only by the grace of God (and last-minute interference from the Democratic Party of Georgia), Atlanta was spared from having a White Republican mayor. But somehow, every dystopian machination still became a reality. How did this happen? I thought having a Black Democratic Mayor, City Council, County Commission, Police Chief, Fire Chief, District Attorney, Solicitor General and every other elected official down to dog catcher would be enough to protect the Black community? The dirty secret of Atlanta politics is that both the only colors or parties that matter are “Green”.
Fundamentally, Atlanta is a city with no “bottom” to the economy. There is no industry like coal or steel that supports the average worker. Therefore, the city must grow from the “top down”. It must attract high paying industries to create demand for housing and office space to support a construction and service industry which then trickles down to the surrounding economy. If the rich people leave then the city will wither and die much like Detroit. Combine that with increased competition from cities such as Charlotte, Birmingham and Nashville and Atlanta must continue to grow from the top down if it wants to survive. Because of this economic model, taxes and regulations must remain low to attract Hollywood and large corporations to relocate here as well as necessitate public expenditures on things such as stadiums and tourist attractions to make the city more attractive to rich people.
However, these low taxes and lack of regulations place a strain on the social safety net and have turned the working poor into a pariah in their own city. The people who are from Atlanta and have been here for generation are faced with a lack of entry level employment, the eradication of affordable housing and gentrification that has forced many far outside of the city limits into rural farmlands which their families have not seen since Reconstruction.
For Black Atlanta, it does not matter if the Mayor is Black or White, Republican or Democrat. They are now the forgotten people of their own land. While Midtown and Buckhead grow, Bankhead still looks like Aleppo. For young black boys, the promise of “center of hope” has turned into a police crackdown and harsh sentences to protect the quality of life for people walking their dogs in Grant Park. The City can find $200,000 to put a rainbow crosswalk in an affluent neighborhood, while only blocks away fights to close one of the few homeless shelters we have left.
It does not matter if the next Mayor is White, what matters is that the next mayor responsive to more than just the needs of the corporate interest who control the city. If the next mayor is not committed to housing equality, improved transportation options, criminal justice reform and rehabilitation and some damn jobs that you don’t need a Doctorate to get then the conditions of our communities will not improve for the foreseeable future. Let us not make race the deciding factor in this election but rather vote for the candidates that hold our best interests in mind.