By Farooq A. Kperogi
When America’s political history is recapitulated decades from now, the late 2000s may well be dubbed the season of racial reconciliation in this nation whose past is often defined by its searing and blood-stained race relations.
First, in a momentously unexampled feat of racial rapprochement, America (with a 70 percent white electorate) elected Barack Obama (the son of a Black Kenyan father and a white Kansas mother who self-identifies as “black”) as president.
Then, in May this year, a predominantly white Mississippi town called Philadelphia that became notorious for its cruelly brutal murder of three civil rights activists in 1964 elected its first black mayor. You will only appreciate the enormous symbolic significance of the election of this really dark-skinned man called James Young when you realize that, for many years, Philadelphia in Mississippi had come to represent what the London Guardian aptly described as “all that was wrong with the old [American] south.”
The town’s bloodcurdling murder of one black and two white Americans (and, it was later found out, seven other black men) whose only crime was that they tried to get black people in the town the right to vote made it the byword for segregation and violent racial intolerance. This incident inspired the film Mississippi Burning.
Because of the town’s cultural and symbolic importance as the bastion of racist conservatism, American conservative icon Ronald Reagan chose it as the site from which to launch his 1980 presidential campaign. And the strategy worked: Reagan swept the south and won a landslide against then incumbent Jimmy Carter, who is a Southern liberal. That’s how deeply emblematic the town is in America’s racial and cultural wars.
Now, 43 years later, the town which savagely butchered civil rights activists in cold blood without the slightest twinge of moral compunction for no reason other than that they wanted get black people the right to vote has elected a black man as its mayor. This is as much a consequence of the radical improvement in race relations in this country as it is an after-effect of what has now been called the Obama effect.
"Obama's election sent a message to our people that it was possible,” Young said. “If we can elect a black man as president we can elect a black man as mayor of Philadelphia. In the last couple of weeks I was hearing that a lot in the community."
James Young and his supporters
Well, the mayoral election in Atlanta on November 3 has shown that the Obama effect does not always have to be a one-way street: white people electing black people. For the first time since 1973, predominantly black Atlanta is also about to elect a white woman as its mayor.
Mary Norwood, who lives in the imposingly fashionable and predominantly white Atlanta neighborhood called Buckhead, has beaten such formidable, well-regarded black candidates as Mohammed Kasim Reed (a state senator), Lisa Borders (the current president of the Atlanta City Council) and Jesse Spikes (a brilliant and successful Harvard- and Oxford-educated lawyer).
Norwood garnered 46 percent of the votes, Reed got 36 percent of the votes, Borders received 16 percent of the votes, and Spikes (who got less than one percent of the vote. To win, a candidate must get over 50 percent of the total vote. So there will be a runoff contest between Norwood and Reed on December 1.
If Norwood prevails on Dec. 1, she will go down in the annals as the first white mayor of Atlanta since 1973. Interestingly, according to the Nov. 3 pre-election polls, while over 90 percent of white voters said they would vote for Norwood, she was the leading candidate among black voters. An Insider Advantage poll showed that nearly one out of three black voters preferred her. Black people make up 59 percent of the electorate here, so no candidate can win without an overwhelming black support.
Of course, it would be unpardonably reductionist to entirely attribute Norwood’s victory to a reverse Obama effect. After all, Atlanta has always prided itself on being the “city too busy hate.” As Andrew Young (who endorsed Mohammed Kasim Reed) said recently,"Atlanta has a reputation of voting for progressive white people. Atlanta's black community has been willing to vote for the person they think is the most competent."
However, it can’t be denied that the increasing tolerance toward black people nationally, as evidenced in the election of many blacks to high-profile positions all across the nation, has eased the historic disharmony that has characterized race relations here and has given black people the emotional and psychological incentive to resist the urge for knee-jerk racial solidarity.
Black people make up 59 percent of the electorate here, so no candidate can win without an overwhelming black support. (For any candidate to be declared winner, they must win over 50 percent of the total vote). Interestingly, according to pre-election opinion polls, while over 90 percent of white voters said they would vote for Norwood the white candidate (which is still not enough to get her elected) she was the leading candidate among black voters. An Insider Advantage poll showed that nearly one out of three black voters preferred her. Now, that’s political maturity.
Well, you see, Atlanta has not always been a predominantly black city. The “browning” of Atlanta started only in the 1960s when black people, for the first time, began to move out in large numbers from small rural towns to big cities in search for opportunities for upward social and economic mobility. As with all such movements all over America in the 1960s and 1970s, the white population which, because of the newly passed Civil Rights legislation, couldn't drive away freshly arrived black migrants decided to flee to the suburbs. They couldn't bear to live with black people in the same city. This phenomenon is called “white flight.”
White flight has often led to the desolation or near desolation of many previously thriving cities, such as Detroit in the state of Michigan (often dubbed America's blackest city because its population is over 80 percent black). But Atlanta defied the trend. In spite of white flight (perhaps because of it) Atlanta became one of the most prosperous cities in America, and now has the distinction of being home to the wealthiest black entrepreneurs and managers in the world.
Atlanta's string of virile, hardworking black mayors and entrepreneurial political establishment attracted an impressive flock of Fortune 500 companies (it has America’s third largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies) and helped win it the bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympics.
So Atlanta’s succession of black mayors from 1973, in more ways than one, exploded the myth of the intrinsic incompetence of black leadership. "We haven't always gotten the credit for that, no," former Atlanta Mayor and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Andrew Young, who supervised the Atlanta’s dramatic transformations during the 1980s, told the Washington Times. "I brought in 1,100 companies from around the world - $70 billion in private investment - and generated more than a million new jobs.
"But most people think that's automatic, that that would have happened anyway," he said.
Now that white people have realized that their race-induced fright of and flight from (black) Atlanta has not affected the city’s expansion and prosperity, they are moving back to the city in droves. According to the Brookings Institution, between 2000 and 2006, Atlanta's white population grew faster than that of any other U.S. city. For instance, in 2000, according to U.S. Census data, Atlanta was 33 percent white and 61 percent black. In 2007, the numbers were 38 percent white and 57 percent black. It's conceivable that in 2010 the white population could exceed 40 percent.
Whites are not only recapturing Atlanta; they are also driving low-income black people out of the city through an apparently benign but dangerously effective strategy called “gentrification.” This is the term for the restoration and buying off of run-down urban areas by the upper middle class (resulting in the displacement of low-income residents). This is done, according to Wikipedia “by over-paying for (and over-pricing) the real estate and so economically expelling the original poor inhabitants.”
Whatever it is, Norwood’s potential election will certainly go down in the annals as one moment when Atlanta truly demonstrated that it is the city too busy to hate or discriminate on the basis of primordial differences. I only hope this moment isn’t a mere flash in the pan.