No buckle-shoed Pilgrims were in sight, and to ask Native Americans to raise their hands would have been rude, but a small group of candidates and voters gathered this week for a Thanksgiving-style session on racial tensions bubbling up in Atlanta’s contest for mayor.
The verdict: We’re better than that, but let’s not examine ourselves too closely.
The topic of race has hung in the background since simple math and the city’s changing demographics both made it clear that, on Tuesday, Councilwoman Mary Norwood stands an even chance of becoming the first white mayor of Atlanta since “The Partridge Family” and bell-bottom jeans.
Even the candidates have been on edge. In a pair of televised debates over the weekend, Norwood and Kasim Reed, the former state senator, tiptoed to the edge of the abyss, peered over — then stepped back.
On Saturday, Norwood said her black supporters had been harassed and threatened. The next day, she said the election wouldn’t turn on such things. Reed, who is African-American, said his white supporters had run a gauntlet as well — yet attributed any excesses to the adrenalin of the campaign.
But again, there’s some nervousness. And so a couple dozen people gathered on Monday to discuss politics and race at an exotic, only-in-Atlanta locale: the Self Discovery Center on South Ponce de Leon Avenue, a house festooned with Krishna-oriented paintings.
Thanksgiving fare included cookies and peppermint tea. A large portrait of a wizened old man armed with a necklace of flowers and a staff looked down upon the runoff candidates for president of the Atlanta City Council and the District 6 council race. Other surrogates were there as well.
Neither Norwood nor Reed were present. They were busy marking the three-year anniversary of an elderly woman gunned down by police.
The moderator for the racial discussion was Al Bartell, an African-American and 2002 Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. He blamed the tone of the mayoral contest on “political marketing stakeholders.”
But midway through the session, 57-year-old Maceo Williams, clad in his blue Norwood T-shirt, stood up to give his angry testimony. “Up until today, I was doing outreach for Jesse Jackson. But because of my involvement in the Mary Norwood campaign, I’m no longer [with Operation] Rainbow/PUSH,” he said.
”I’ve been staunch, pro-black for quite a long time,” he told the group. That hardly matters now. “I get the iceberg treatment.”
(Janice Mathis, vice president for Rainbow/PUSH Atlanta, concedes that she and Williams had an argument over his work for Norwood. “I did caution him that Rainbow/PUSH does not take a position in political campaigns,” Mathis said, acknowledging that phone calls from “local campaigns” prompted the discussion. But Mathis said Williams’ name will remain on the group’s Web site.)
If Williams expected outraged sympathy at this encounter session, he didn’t get it.
The candidates and their representatives called the long-time activist a fine and worthy fellow, then moved on to blandly endorse a society that sees no difference between black or white, gay or straight, male or female. Williams doffed his leather touring cap and shook his head.
He needn’t have been discouraged. Their non-reaction was a good thing.
We often point to that first Thanksgiving feast as a symbol of reconciliation and brotherhood, conveniently forgetting that the massacres came after the pumpkin pie. Not before.
If you want to say grace over something today, give thanks that political Atlanta is grounded in reality. And more than a little hypocrisy. But mostly reality.
The reality is that overt appeals to race have become the surest path to defeat for citywide office, whether the candidate is white or black. Victory is found in the margins on the other side.
If Norwood can hang on to the level of black support she showed Nov. 3, if enough Maceo Williamses stick with her, she wins. If Reed has built an adequate network of votes in Midtown and Buckhead, the day is his.
The hypocrisy is that elections are about getting your most fervent supporters to the polls. In the South, that means appeals to racial identity are nearly inescapable.
But the overtures, by necessity, are becoming more and more subtle. And dicey, too.
One notch below the runoff for mayor, the two candidates for council president, Clair Muller and Ceasar Mitchell, present the match of race and gender — but none of the racial tension.
It has been a friendly and collegial contest. On Monday, both candidates declined to throw themselves into wake of the Norwood-Reed conflict. Again, this is a good thing.
Both are council veterans. They know each other too well, Muller said. “Clair’s a good person, and I’m a good person,” Mitchell said. “We both can go deep into policy, so we don’t need to go into personalities.”
And that’s something else to be thankful for.
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