Aaron Turpeau, an Atlanta political activist and strategist, has dropped a little bomb into the middle of the city’s mayoral race in the form of a memo to unknown black leaders in Atlanta. The document, intended to be private, calls on black Atlanta to unite behind a single black candidate to keep the mayor’s office in black hands, allowing the city to pursue what Turpeau calls a “black agenda.”
The memo, which came to light Thursday, makes at least two egregious, offensive and dangerous assumptions:
First, it treats the mayor’s office as a black possession, a trophy of sorts that could be surrendered to white Atlantans for the first time in 35 years. That is a cartoonish, archaic approach to politics that, among other things, ignores the humanity of individual mayoral candidates, with all their strengths and weaknesses, and tries to reduce them to mere representatives of their respective races.
That mindset has had its day, and that day is, or ought to be, over. But as the memo reminds us, it isn’t quite. There are those in the black and white communities who still see opportunity, profit and power in extending that day beyond its normal lifespan, and the Turpeau memo lays out one way it might be done.
In fact, the memo is valuable because it brings to the surface a sentiment that is more widely held among black voters than many local leaders, black and white, would care to publicly acknowledge. Many black voters — older voters in particular — take pride in the idea that Atlanta is a black-run city, and for some that sense of pride would be diminished if a white person were elected to lead it.
While such sentiments are not supposed to be acknowledged, they are real and they have a foundation in history that ought to be respected. Trying to judge them out of context is impossible. When Maynard Jackson was elected mayor in 1973, becoming the first African American elected to lead a major southern city, black Atlantans understandably celebrated that day as a mark of progress for a people whose ambitions and abilities had long been suppressed. The city had given the world its native son, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1968 King had been returned to Atlanta as a martyr. Five years later, that city had elected a black man to lead it, and a natural sense of black ownership developed almost immediately.
They were not alone. Many white voters at the time invested a similar symbolic power in Jackson’s election. They too believed that what was “ours” had become “theirs,” and they abandoned the city as a result.
So how does that play out today, in the Atlanta of 2009?
To some white voters, the cultural memory of repression among black Americans has become an obstacle to progress and racial harmony. Slavery, they note, ended almost 145 years ago and the Civil Rights Act passed back in 1964. “Get over it,” in other words, the past is past.
Well, it’s not so easy as all that. In fact, if someone were to propose, say, pulling down monuments to Confederate soldiers at county courthouses around the state, I suspect that white cultural memories from that era would bubble to the surface pretty quickly and pretty passionately. Old times here are not forgotten, and they still have the power to move people. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
On the other hand, it is equally fatuous to claim, as the memo does, that “if a white candidate were to win the 2009 mayoral race, it would be just as significant in political terms as Maynard Jackson’s victory in 1973.” No, it would not. There would be no comparison whatsoever between the two. Such a claim requires you to believe that opportunities and racial attitudes in Atlanta, in Georgia, and in the United States in 2009 are unchanged since 1973, and they are not. It is impossible to sustain such a ridiculous argument in a day when Barack Obama sits in the Oval Office. Americans can, should and increasingly do judge candidates “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” even if a small number of people, black and white both, are not yet ready to live up to that admonition.
It was also hard to miss the undercurrent of pleasure that the memo’s publication inspired in certain quarters. White voters who had cringed for decades at accusations of racism now had documentary evidence that black people too saw things in terms of us vs. them, and they haven’t been shy about pointing out that fact. Personally, I don’t think you can blame them. It is a very human reaction.
But while we’re on the subject, let’s remember that there was also evidence of that “ours vs. theirs” mindset in the reaction of some white Americans to Obama’s inauguration. It would be unfair and harsh to describe that sentiment as racist, at least in the classic sense of believing that one race is superior to the other. Nor was that attitude in many cases even conscious, instead manifesting itself in such nonsense as the claim that Obama is not an American citizen. It was more about a sense of possession and dispossession, the idea that “they” had won and “we” had lost the most valuable and symbolically important post in the land.
It was, in other words, the mirror image of the sentiment expressed in Turpeau’s memo.
It’s no secret: Invoking racial identification makes voters of all colors easier to manipulate. Tom Watson and George Wallace knew that, as did Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater. So does Turpeau. It can blind voters white and black to the failures of leaders who share their background and to the virtues of those of a different skin tone, and for that reason it is dangerous.
In the Atlanta of 2009, we can do a lot better than that, which leads us to the second major problem with the memo.
The memo states explicitly what it calls “an unstated assumption:”
“… having a black mayor in Atlanta is equal to having a black social, economic and political agenda or at least someone in office who would be sensitive to that agenda if not a full promoter of that agenda.”
With that statement, the memo moves the discussion from the symbolism of race politics to its practical impact. It assumes that only a black leader can help black Atlanta, and by doing so it legitimizes the photographic negative of that argument: Only a white leader can help white Atlanta.
Once that mindset takes hold, we’ve all been cheated, white and black both. Mary Norwood, a white city council member who has worked for years to build relationships across racial, class and geographic lines, might as well abandon the effort. The same can be said for Kasim Reed and Lisa Borders, black candidates who have many enthusiastic supporters among white Atlantans. The argument in the memo attempts to negate that success and reduce us to Shiites vs. Sunnis, tribal loyalties overwhelming all.
To some degree, “the black agenda” is also a code term for economic gain. If the office of mayor moves from black hands to white hands, the argument goes, control of jobs and contracts shifts as well. At one level, the Turpeau memo is a warning to black Atlanta not to let that happen.
It is easy to cast that aspect of the memo in the worst possible light, and some will try to do so. But in practical terms, there is nothing unique or surprising about it. If you’ve ever experienced a county-level election in which one courthouse crowd is challenging the other for control of jobs and contracts, you know how bitter the fight can get without race playing any role whatsoever. Simply put, the winner in politics enjoys the spoils of war. In fact, one of the more remarkable results of the supposed political revolution in Georgia, the shift from Democratic to Republican control, was the fact that the levers of economic power remained in the same hands. Once the smoke cleared, most of the same faces were still in the same places, having exchanged a D for an R, which tells you it really wasn’t a revolution at all.
That faux revolution at the state level was itself inspired in part by sentiments of us vs. them, and I think the fact that nothing has really changed for the better has begun to sink in among many Georgians who supported the change. The state is still beset by a poor education system and for many a stagnant or declining economy, and problems such as transportation and water have gotten noticably worse.
A similar realization is reflected in the Turpeau memo. (For the record, Turpeau claims he didn’t write the memo himself, that it was the product of a group of people, and it does in fact read that way.)
Even after decades of black leadership, the document notes “the persistent poverty in the city, the educational crisis in the schools; the human security/public safety concerns; the type of economic development policies being pursued; and the city’s awful financial management issues.” It acknowledges that “just having a black mayor doesn’t guarantee that African American issues and concerns would be effectively addressed either (as the current administration’s relationship to the African American community clearly demonstrates). In other words, are we simply providing votes without any expectations of the candidate that would enjoy our support?”
That’s a damn fine question, one that crosses racial lines and political boundaries. And the truth is, at the local, state and national level, the emphasis on race-identity politics endorsed in the memo aggravates the very problems the memo outlines. It distracts the attention of voters of all races from the issues that truly matter. At one point the memo’s authors even state that concern explicitly.
“In other words, in 2009 we have arrived at a place in time where we can no longer afford to just look at race in the mayor’s race or individual council races,” it concludes.
So Turpeau and his unknown colleagues get it. They understand the limitations of the politics they endorse, even as they find themselves unable to extricate themselves from it. It is too easy and too tempting, for them and for the rest of us too.