Maria Hinojosa, a former CNN correspondent who now works at PBS, sought a city packed with diversity for a series she was developing called “America By the Numbers.” She found diversity in abundance in Clarkston, a small town of 7,500 residents ten miles east of downtown Atlanta in the shadow of Stone Mountain.
The numbers don’t lie. In 1980, Clarkston was 90 percent white. That number, based on the 2010 census, is 14 percent. Thanks to a massive influx of refugees, the city now boasts residents from more than 40 countries. While some citizens welcome the energy and courage of the new arrivals, others say they create an undue strain on resources and tension with existing residents.
Hinojosa, in a recent phone interview from her office in Harlem, says she knew the largest multicultural growth in the United States is in the South and thought Clarkston was a fascinating melting pot to explore: “It’s the future of America on steroids.”
She wanted to take hard numbers, then give viewers a taste of the people behind those numbers. “My approach is to be honest, straightforward, critical, yet understanding,” she says.
Hinojosa came back to Atlanta last week to host two screenings of the program: one at the Clarkston Community Center, which drew 300 residents and mostly positive reviews, and another at GPB headquarters in Midtown, which brought in another 100 people.
“Part of the role of journalists,” she said to the GPB group last Tuesday, “is to present a problem. Part of our role is to sometimes just honestly present hope.”
Over the 30-minute special airing Sunday and Monday on GPB, she introduces Dianne Leonetti, a white City Councilwoman who befriended a Somalian refugee Amina Osman. Osman canvassed her friends to help Leonetti win her seat. Though the pair have differing political views, they see themselves as “sisters,” Leonetti says.
Osman is a picture of grace and strength, after being left for dead a few years ago in a Somalian morgue after being knifed and shot. She was in a coma for 17 months. She shows some her scars on camera.
“We can work together,” Osman said after the GPB screening. “That’s what I’m going to teach them. Republicans shouldn’t hate Democrats. Democrats shouldn’t hate Republicans. We are human beings and we can help each other.”
Leonetti says there aren’t enough jobs for the refugees close to Clarkston. Many have to commute two hours each way to chicken factories, making it hard for them to take English classes or spend quality time with their families. Older residents, both black and white, have left the city, uncomfortable with the growing refugee population, she said. But at the same time, she said the last eight homes sold in Clarkston were to young white families.
“I’m very encouraged,” she said after the screening. “They have enough courage to come and experience Clarkston.”
Emanuel Ransom, Clarkston’s first African American mayor who moved to Clarkston in the early 1960s, says he’s had issues with the refugees. “I did the stereotyping like everybody does,” he said after a screening last week. “Oh, God! Here they come. They’ll take our jobs and decrease real estate values. But we’re all immigrants, aren’t we?” He has found many of the immigrant stories inspiring.
Ransom says the documentary “was a fair and true adaptation of Clarkston. They did a fantastic job. My phone has been inundated with calls. The citizens who were at the screening were pleased with it.”
Graham Thomas, a Julliard-trained white Clarkston resident who is seen playing his jazz saxophone, honestly expresses his misgivings about the changes in the special.
“Here, we are the minority,” he says in the special. “As an old Southern boy, I wonder sometimes if I’ve got any buddies that think the way I do.”
The special also features a Bhutanese family where the father is socially conservative, the daughter loves Pres. Barack Obama and a son embraces Rep. Ron Paul, who has Libertarian leanings.
“I think that level of complexity of the new American voter is fascinating,” Hinojosa says.
Hinojosa raised the money to fund the program (including the Ford Foundation and the National Minority Consortia) in hopes of finding more donors to create a full series out of “America By the Numbers.” PBS has committed to giving her the series if the money comes through.
During the GPB screening, one viewer (who left before I could grab her name) questioned Hinojosa about the role of Thomas, the white sax player. She thought he was portrayed as a “buffoon.” (There is a point when Graham self-effacingly wonders if he’s a “racist and a redneck.”) Several others didn’t feel that way. Ransom, who is friends with Thomas and recommended Hinojosa speak to him, said Thomas was happy with his portrayal because “that’s the true Graham.”
“His honesty was raw and courageous and adds to the fabric of the community,” Hinojosa said.
Another white attendee, pastor Robert Bear, said he also had an initial feeling that Thomas looked a bit like Archie Bunker and felt a “twinge” that he may be playing the stereotypical white curmudgeon. But as the special went deeper, “my feelings went away.”
My wife Helen Kim Ho graduated Clarkston High School in 1989, when the refugee population was heavily Vietnamese. She thought the special “was beautiful. It was not surprising,” she says. She was struck by the fact 85 percent of businesses in the city were owned by immigrants. “These new refugees will thrive but they need that first settling ground. Clarkston is that hub. It’s sad there are policymakers that want to limit the number of refugees coming to Clarkston. That’s stopping what makes that city so unique and special.”
“America By the Number: Clarkston, GA”
12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 23, 7 p.m., Monday, Sept. 24, GPB
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk