During my recent series of columns about MARTA, several readers suggested that the biggest obstacle for MARTA is a racial divide in which rich whites, mostly in the suburbs, despise a transit system for poor urban blacks.
I think they’re wrong. And not terribly helpful.
I was born in 1978, 13 years after the General Assembly passed the MARTA Act and mere months before the agency’s first train got rolling. So, I will not pretend to know first-hand about the racial atmospherics of MARTA’s early days.
I heard a reasonable argument recently — from a transit proponent, I’d add — that suburbanites opted out of MARTA based on one cold calculation: They stood to pay for years, maybe decades, before the rails crossed I-285 to reach them. Why say yes to that?
But I also understand that our branding as The City Too Busy to Hate always mixed public relations with public reality, in varying parts. I don’t doubt that attitudes toward race played a substantial role in any referendum in Georgia in the 1960s and ’70s.
Then again, lots of things that were true 40 years ago are no longer the case. So, what about this one?
Has racism been eradicated? No more than kudzu has. But we have come closer to the former, and certainly far enough that flat assertions that racism drives transportation policy don’t pass the smell test.
I’ve heard people say that connecting the city to the suburbs via transit would bring crime (read: blacks) to peaceful (read: white) areas. Strike that — I’ve heard people, mostly in-towners, attribute that line of thought to OTPers.
Some suburbanites think that way, but I highly doubt that theirs is the prevailing belief. Both Cobb and Gwinnett counties are increasingly diverse, to say nothing of majority-black Clayton County. The keep-blaming-race crowd ignores those facts. And it’s not as if these places are otherwise sealed off by moats.
Some readers pointed the finger at the state’s Republican — excuse me, republiNazi — leadership. Their idea is that institutional racism not only lives but rules in 2010. Hardly.
If the standard for “racism” among Republicans is whether they will agree to spend money the way liberals want them to do, then there are a lot of unwitting racists in the world.
If the standard is whether MARTA gets singled out for restrictions among the state’s other 100-plus transit agencies, then we have to ask whether Republicans have been fooled into thinking that wealthy whites fill most of the bus seats in Augusta or Savannah.
If the standard is whether top Republicans hear MARTA’s pleas, then we have to ignore that House Speaker David Ralston spent much political capital to pass a transportation bill. The bill wasn’t perfect, but it filled all of MARTA’s requests from just a year earlier. Ralston worked closely with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to secure GOP and Democratic votes.
And if the standard is whether these Republicans represent rural or urban areas, well, Ralston isn’t exactly from East Point.
The race-blamers offer no substantive counter-argument to any of this, just another finger pointed at the South’s stained past.
Neither will many of them engage on the substance of MARTA’s track record, and that’s too bad. Because any of them who truly care about the agency’s future would see there are plenty of real problems to address.
NOTE: I realize this is a touchy topic, and I ask that you keep that in mind as you comment on it.