Giving Away the Store: The Black Political Class as Bystanders and Looters

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Dr. King once expressed the belief that we might be “integrating into a burning house.” Even that might not be so bad, one supposes, if we were actually fighting the fire. But is America's black political class even committed to fighting the fire at all, to alleviating poverty, to standing up for peace and justice?  Are they only about prolonging their perks and careers? Are they firefighters? Or looters?

Giving Away the Store: The Black Political Class as Bystanders and Looters

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Why does the black political class exist any more? There was once a time when many of its leading members believed, or at least pretended to believe they and their careers existed to give voice to the previously voiceless, to press for the urgent needs and demands of downtrodden masses of their people. Both Detroit and Atlanta elected their first black mayors in 1974, and both city halls have been run by African Americans ever since.

In Atlanta, where the black political class promoted their city as “Black Mecca” during the eighties and nineties, the gap between rich and poor is statistically greater than in any of the nation's twenty largest cities. For the first few years of the 21st century, Atlanta's percentage of black children in poverty was rivaled only by that of pre-Katrina New Orleans. But this is something you'd never guess from the utterances or the priorities of black Atlanta's political leaders.

The black political class that rules Atlanta are entirely focused on their own careers, and pretty much oblivious of black poverty, joblessness and disenfranchisement. Where once they might have raised their voices against the trillions spent on unjust wars abroad, wars even on the African continent itself, that consume wealth which might otherwise be spent on alleviating poverty, on creating housing, jobs and transit, black leaders have censored themselves and made the overwhelming antiwar sentiments of their constituents irrelevant.

In the face of mass black incarceration, much of Georgia's black political class are opportunistically silent. They denounce Newt Gingrich but not Republican Governor Nathan Deal, who openly declares he is implementing the proposals of Gingrich's Right On Crime organization to reduce the amount spent on prisoners, and vastly increase the numbers under various forms of community supervision. When the governor's so-called commission on criminal justice reform proposed to place under additional probationary supervision even those inmates who had completely served their time, there was not a murmur from Georgia's black leaders. Small wonder. Many are expecting patronage contracts and crumbs from expanded “re-entry” programs.

Atlanta's black political class is now poised to surrender control of MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, which operates subway trains and an extensive bus network worth more than $6 billion dollars. The mostly black taxpayers and voters of Atlanta, and Fulton and Dekalb counties levied a one cent sales tax on themselves a generation ago to pay for MARTA. Outlying counties, all with white majorities at the time, refused to join. Let the central city starve, they reasoned. They didn't want trains and buses full of black faces to enter their fair cities and towns. Suburban and rural Georgia politicians prohibited the new transit agency from receiving gas tax or other state funds, and since everybody knew black Dekalb, Fulton and Atlanta could not be trusted to manage their own funds, required them to split all revenue 50-50 between operating and capital expenses, both restrictions no other transit agency in the nation is under.

Even now, white politicians in outlying counties want transit into Atlanta, but they want it separately from MARTA, as long as Fulton, Dekalb and the city of Atlanta are calling the shots. They have already launched luxury buses under a state agency from Gwinnett and Cobb counties to downtown Atlanta, and denied funding for Clayton County, now majority black, to launch its own bus service. Light rail additions are planned for specific, gentrified parts of Atlanta, but to be paid for by the poorest Atlantans many of whom have no bus service at all.

The solution proposed by Georgia's Republican governor, and endorsed by the entire black Democratic leadership, is a ten-county board, where the Republican governor, along with the state legislature's minority and majority leaders will appoint most of the seats, with the rest going on a one-county-one-vote basis. The trouble is that several of the white outlying counties have only 100 or 200 thousand people. Any two of them can outvote majority black Fulton county's 1.1 million, Dekalb's 700,000 or Atlanta's half million. The new multi-county agency will take over MARTA's $6 billion in assets, along with its ability to receive federal transit funds in the future. Those assets will come under the control of politicians and constituencies who refused for a generation to help build them. State control of Atlanta's transit assets will be a prelude, most believe, to outright privatization, something that local Democrats have just about as bad a record on as Republicans.

It was a black mayor, Bill Campbell, who privatized Atlanta's water system a few years ago, only to have the deal unravel in spectacular fashion. With bright red mud streaming from the taps in the richest, whitest parts of town, Campbell's successor Shirley Franklin had to halt her own plans to privatize garbage collection, fleet maintenance, parks and other city functions. But former mayor Franklin now heads a firm which specializes in privatizing schools and government agencies.

Atlanta's black mayor is on board with giving up black and local control over transit, as are all the visible heads of black Atlanta's legislative delegation and the legislative black caucus. As far as they're concerned, it's a done deal, but not to be talked about much, lest their constituents become aware of the scale of this massive giveaway. So black politicians stand in front of audiences and simply don't talk about it. Corporate TV and radio stations don't mention it, except to say that when it comes on the ballot late this summer, it'll create jobs and relieve traffic congestion. That's it and that's all.

Evidently, Atlanta's black political leaders have more important things to worry about than whether their constituents can get to work or school or medical care. They've got their own careers to look after. They've got campaign funds to raise and contracts to let. And of course, they've got a president to re-elect. After all, he's black. They're black. And the guys running against him are all white racists, who'd put us clear in the back of that bus again. Can't have that. This will be their rallying cry to the black masses ---- stand by the president --- and by the way, re-elect all of us too.

Harry Belafonte often tells the story of one of his last conversations with the late Dr. Martin Luther King, in which King expressed the fear that blacks had struggled mightily only to integrate themselves into a burning house. Even that might be OK, one supposes, if the black leadership class imagined themselves as firefighters, trying to protect the lives and livelihoods of their people. But Atlanta's black political class aren't fighting the fires. They've used their privileged access as mayors, legislators and corporate officials to join the privatizers and looters.

It's time to disown them.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. He lives in Marietta GA, and can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.