by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Black Mecca is definitely over. While the black business elite celebrated its own rule in Atlanta for a generation, Georgia climbed to 4th among the states in rates of incarceration, and number one in the number of adults under lock, key, probation, parole and various forms of court and correctional supervision. As in other cities Atlanta's black business class has overseen the removal of large numbers of African Americans from the central city. Now that the victory party is finally over, where has the failure of the black business class to address the problems of Black America left us?
Looking Beyond Black Mecca and the Failure of the Black Misleadership Class
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
“Georgia's rate of adult incarceration is now 4th in the nation, behind the District of Columbia, Louisiana and Mississippi.”
Black Mecca, for the one-third of Black Atlanta lingering at or below the poverty line, never happened. This is not to say that Black Mecca, that magical place where for a generation the climate was benign, the elected officials black and enlightened, the social networks and business opportunities a-poppin', was a myth. Black Mecca was very real. Scores of black millionaires were created, along with a thriving and empowered class of black professionals and contractors. But for at least one third of Atlanta's African American households, Black Mecca was a place where somebody else's dreams came true, not theirs.
That somebody else was our local black business and political elite. Black Mecca was the brand name of their decades-long victory party. It was a celebration all were invited to join in, whether or not they actually shared the fruits of victory. And now, with the day in sight when Atlanta will no longer have a black majority, the party is winding down. It's time to clear our heads, and to look beyond Black Mecca.
Like the rest of Black America, Atlanta is in the grip of profound, multi-dimensional crises. Black joblessness is rising to levels not seen in decades. Gaps between white and black rates of employment, education, family income, wealth, health, life expectancy and more are expanding. As everywhere else, consumer debt is at an all-time high, and waves of foreclosures disproportionately threaten blacks in metro Atlanta. Public services like MARTA are experiencing drastic cutbacks, and traditional safety net institutions like Grady Hospital have been cut back or effectively privatized.
While the triumph of black economic and political power was celebrated in Atlanta, Georgia's incarceration rate shot up 141% between 1982 and 2007. Georgia's rate of adult incarceration is now 4th in the nation, behind the District of Columbia, Louisiana and Mississippi. When those in prisons and jails are combined with the numbers on parole, probation, and all forms of court and correctional supervision, Georgia leads the nation with one in fifteen of its adult citizens under lock, key, or official surveillance. It goes without saying that a disproportionate number of these are black. When such vast numbers suffer the punishing economic and social sanctions meted out to ex-felons, including job discrimination, denial of educational grants and loans, multiple hurdles that block the return of their franchise, the inability even to rent apartments in many neighborhoods in their own names, it's no exaggeration to say that black mass incarceration is locking a class of lower-income blacks into poverty for a generation to come.
The African American leadership class that gave us Black Mecca has no answers to these multiple crises. Their memories are too short and selective to recall that the last time a federal government program lifted millions of Americans out of poverty at a stroke was the 1960s adoption of Medicare. Our black political elite are not just unable to articulate even the foggiest vision of how urban neighborhoods can be developed for the people who currently live in them, or how jobs can be created, how public education can work, or poverty alleviated, they shrink even from public discussion of such matters because these are dreams they gave up long ago. Our black business and political leaders won't discuss black mass incarceration as the pervasive and pernicious social policy it is. Instead they join with the white elite who depict it as the outcome of individual choices, or of differential educational outcomes arising from a “school to prison pipelinei” or similar nonsense.
After riding high for a generation they are unable to come up with any model for urban economic development aside from moving poorer residents out and moving richer ones in. Some of their signature projects, like the Atlanta Belt-Line, the 1996 Olympics, and the policies of the Atlanta Housing Authority, have been based around or occurred in the context of destabilization and dispersal of lower-income black neighborhoods, including Atlanta's housing projects. Like the white elite, our black leaders across the nation do not value stable black neighborhoods if the people in them have low incomes. Wherever there's a dollar to be made flipping a neighborhood, they have joined the white establishment in portraying such places as hopeless sinkholes of despair and violence for which the best medicine is gentrification.
After failing to defend its public sector, its school systems, its public hospital and such, all Black Atlanta's leadership cohort has to offer as a reason they should be deferred to are is their blackness, the special status that merits supporting their candidates at the polls and which accords them set-asides and special consideration as the representatives of people whose interests they ceased to serve long ago.
Former congressman, ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young is a prominent representative of our local black elite with a global profile. In a recent episode of his PBS television program, Andrew Young Presents titled “What's Wrong With Nigeria.” Young spent the hour explaining there was practically nothing at all wrong with Nigeria. It was a beautiful place full of proud, smart, hard working people. The only blemish Young could point to was that Nigeria's famously free and contentious press operated with, as he put it “no libel laws.” This was so important to Young that he mentioned twice, perhaps three times. The truth is that Nigeria does have libel laws under which cases are being brought even nowii. Apparently they just aren't strong enough for Andy's taste. Who benefits from strong libel laws? The answer is that wealthy corporations and their operatives, like Young himself, are the chief beneficiaries of strong libel laws. Almost nothing you say about poor people is libelous, and only very wealthy people and corporations in practice sue for libel. George Monbiotiii offers a range of examples from Britain, where he says strong libel laws have ended the intrusion of investigative journalism into the doings of the private sector altogether. It's a problem that Young's friends don't have back home, because we have no local journalism to speak of. Its absence makes makes the depth of converging local crises opaque to public discernment and renders the actions of the black elite's leadership all but impossible for ordinary citizens to follow.
Four years ago Atlanta's incumbent mayor Shirley Franklin ran for a second term, with the biggest real estate deal in local history, the Belt Line project hanging in the balance. Widely touted as an eco-friendly initiative in the tradition of “smart growth”, and endorsed by labor unions and local environmental groups, and the chamber of commerce, the Belt Line project was at its core an effort to lock down the future property tax revenues of a huge portion of Atlanta to repay a bond issue at ruinous interest, with a cost then estimated at anywhere between $2 and $6 billion dollars.
The Belt Line bonds were to be issued against the area's ten figure increases in property tax revenues which would be diverted from Atlanta's schools and general services over the next two decades. The billions in bond revenue would be administered by a new public-private entity called Belt Line Inc., whose procedures maximized the input of developers and minimized the input of Atlanta citizens, shutting out altogether those who did not live in the Belt Line district. The funds would be used to purchase and leverage the construction of upscale housing and shopping, along with the creation of a network of parks, bike trails and perhaps even a separate subset of public transit, streetcars or trolleys for the new upscale residents to ride on. Arguably, it was a gigantic, greenwashed real estate scam, a privatization of billions in tax revenue to subsidize developers to build yuppie housing and shopping where they already wanted to build it.
Atlanta's city council and mayor had to approve the deal, along with the Fulton County Commission and the city's school board, all within weeks either side of the election of the mayor, the city council and the school board. The last thing Atlanta's elite needed was a public discussion on the merits and implications of the Belt Line deal. So it didn't happen. During the months leading up to the election of its mayor and city council, local media gave the contest next to no coverage. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution clearly favored the incumbent mayor, running stories that dubbed her the “9th bestiv” mayor on the planet. The AJC managed to endorse electoral candidates in Sandy Springs, which had recently seceded from Fulton County. But major media coverage of Atlanta's campaigns for mayor, city council and school board was conspicuously absent, and the AJC endorsed nobody.
Atlanta's black owned and oriented media was no better. Black radio news has long since shriveled to insignificancev, and a majority of the “news” stories printed by Atlanta's black press like the Atlanta Inquirer and the Atlanta Daily World on any given day are press releases from local government and universities, along with AP copy and entertainment pieces. Shirley Franklin won re-election in 2005 with a Saddam-like margin of about nine to one, with an abysmally low turnout.
The absence of local journalism aimed at Black Atlanta means it is a community, if there can be such an animal, with no internal discourse, no civic conversation of its own, apart from what corporate media see fit to allow. This is a situation Andy Young might like to see in Nigeria. There are no public forums in which Atlanta's local elite can be asked why urban economic development always means gentrification. There are no public spaces in which citizens may compare their lived experience against their expectations of what schools and mass transit systems, what police and community development departments and the rest of government and leadership actually deliver.
A recently issued book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, the Death and Life of Great American Newspapersvi, makes clear that the absence of local journalism is a problem not just in Atlanta but across the country. Their scholarship points illuminates a key piece of lost history ---- that Frederick Douglass and his contemporaries in the 19th abolitionist movement enjoyed nearly free postage for their newspapers, without which they could never have made their case to the American public. Since the clampdown on postal distribution of antiwar, pro-union and socialist literature through the mails in World War 1, corporate power has all but closed the post office to the distribution of anything but its own mail, and the stranglehold on distribution of non-commercial, non-corporate public communication continues to this day.
Digital video cameras and DVD recorders, for example, are cheap and ubiquitous, so anyone with something to say ought to be able to produce a DVD magazine. But thanks to a 2007 “postal rate reformvii” written by lobbyists from Time-Warner, the cost of sending DVDs and CDs through the mail went from as low as $.06 per unit bulk rate to more than a dollar per unit.
Nichols and McChesney conclude, and we concur, that a sustained political fight must be waged for subsidies to journalism, whether in the form of reduced postal rates, new forms of legal ownership for print and broadcast outlets, the imposition of requirements on broadcast licensees to fund news departments, tax breaks for those who subscribe to newspapers. McChesney is a founder of Free Press, a national grassroots group at the center of fights for media justice from the internet to broadcast TV and radio. This media justice movement is where Black Atlanta can find allies in the fight for the space to hear and speak in its own voice.
What remains of Black Atlanta's civic sector must give birth to new media and fight for the funding of journalism in old media, journalism which honors the tradition of fearlessly exposing not just governmental wrongdoings, but those of the private sector as well. So-called “citizen journalism,” which is essentially volunteer journalism won't do the trick. It takes full time reporters, McChesney and Nichols argue, with the protection of prestigious institutions to pursue the truth wherever it lies. If Black Atlanta does not seek, find, fight for and somehow fund its own fearless and independent media, there will be no challenge to our corrupt and failed black elite.
Finally, let's briefly examine the prospects around a practical political challenge to black Atlanta's elite leadership an issue of deep and abiding concern already mentioned, the nation's social policy of black mass incarceration. I is beyond dispute among most African Americans that the nation's ostensibly race-blind laws and enforcement machinery yield results that are anything but colorblind.
If there were independent media actually available to the masses of Black Atlanta, it would be possible to run candidates for office in black constituencies who placed at the center of their campaigns frank opposition to mass incarceration. Such candidates might find it relatively easy to popularize and win support for subsidized family visits for prisoners, an end to privatization of inmate health care, mandatory minimum sentences, to the prosecution and incarceration of juveniles as adults. Candidates who promise to try to roll back the wholesale and piecemeal privatization of corrections, to cease the onerous fees levied by private contractors on families and friends who call or send money to their loved ones behind bars would quickly find themselves at the head of a broad, trans-generational black civic movement the like of which has not been seen since the 1960s. The possibilities for coalitions, alliances and partnerships would abound, as churches all sizes and denominations, youth groups, fraternities and sororities and formations of all kinds would flock to such a banner. And there is no reason such a movement, once begun would not proliferate nationwideviii.
For a host of reasons beyond the scope of this paper, this is a banner which can only be hoisted from a place outside and to the left of the two major parties. It is a political space the very existence of which which our corporate media, our compromised black elite, and the shrunken civic discourse they preside over must urgently deny, and one which we must urgently affirm. No community can long survive without its own voices, its own internal conversation. Black Atlanta is no exception. We will either begin to rediscover and fight to empower those voices, or our communities will pass out of existence with no more notice than the self-involved black elite patter we heard around the city's last mayoral election around the possible loss of their own perks at City Hall.