Patrik Jonssonm, Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 2017
James Morgan feels in his bones that being a “descendant of slaves” is still a defining quality of his existence as a black man in America.
In that way, the retired gas-line worker takes particular pride in Atlanta’s nearly five decades of black leadership, epitomized today by Mayor Kasim Reed, a descendant of Nigeria’s Igbo tribe who has overseen a spectacular economic run for the South’s preeminent trade and culture hub.
Despite a long string of black mayors, “wealth passes to whites, poverty passes to us,” says Morgan, taking a stroll through Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood on a chilly fall morning. “As blacks, we don’t care how high the tide is going because our boats have holes in them. To fix that, we are going to need a different type of politician. We need whites to come in and help us with it.”
At the same time, this emerging coalition – ranging from socially conservative black retirees to culturally progressive white doctoral students – has the capacity to upend a carefully calibrated power balance that many African-Americans still believe is necessary to showcase black excellence to an ever-skeptical world.
“People have loved the fact that Atlanta has had strong black mayors,” says Maynard Eaton, a long-time Atlanta columnist and political strategist. “After all, this is the South, and Atlanta is the cradle of the civil rights movement. But there are young folks who have come up in a more racially tolerant era – below 40, young families – who are wondering: ‘What the [heck] has a black mayor done for me?’ They are the ones saying, ‘Let’s give white folks a chance.’ The black thing isn’t as black as it once was.”
“Many African-Americans are long past the idea of Atlanta as a black municipal empowerment city par excellence,” says Professor Owens [Michael Leo Owens, author]. That’s why “Keisha Lance Bottoms has to work very hard to figure out how she’s going to get a lot of those black voters. The areas that demonstrated some of the greatest degrees of excitement and mobilization between the general election and the runoff have actually been districts that are white or have recently become majority white or plurality black.”
Two generations ago, white flight turned the streetcar suburbs on the city’s east side from nearly all white to nearly all black in the span of a decade. Now an influx of new urbanites is changing the demographic mix again.
Outside dynamics have largely superseded the emergence of white mayors in majority black cities. The ineptitude of the Ray Nagin administration was laid bare after hurricane Katrina. In Detroit, black voters couldn’t ignore a municipal bankruptcy that emerged under black leadership – or the scandal that landed former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in prison for 28 years. The city re-elected its white mayor, Mike Duggan, by a 3-to-1 margin earlier this month. To be sure, Atlanta has not been immune to scandal, especially long-running probes into vendor contracting at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest tarmac. One such investigation landed a past mayor in federal prison.
So far, these new white mayors have, if anything, embraced solidarity with African-American communities.
Yet ugly overtones of the past still seep through. Just days before the November election, thousands of Atlantans received a robocall urging the election of Lance-Bottoms.
“Keep Atlanta black,” the female voice said. “Only Keisha can stop the white takeover of City Hall.” Lance-Bottoms denied involvement and asked the state attorney general to investigate.
Such overtly racist appeals jarred many people, including North Carolina native Charles VunCannon, a doctoral student at Emory University, who recently bought a home in what he deems “bohemian” East Atlanta.