Monday, May 02, 2005

Racism, Republicanism, and the South

      The South has long been a mystery to most outsiders and newcomers, even while true Southerners can't figure out what the fuss is all about. (For the record, by South here I don't mean Mexico, San Diego, Antarctica, or South Florida. I mean the South - always with capitals - as in bible-thumping, slow talking, grits eating, "y'all" saying South.) Full disclosure: I am not a Southerner. I don't say this with any connotation - it's just a fact. I was born in Brooklyn, lived in South Florida (the 6th borough), and have only been in Atlanta for 11 years. Atlanta is no longer part of the South, although it certainly has a Southern flavor.
      The South has always played a disproportionately large part in national politics. It was largely because of the underpopulated southern states that the republican Senate was created instead relying solely on the more democratic House. The Civil War, of course, was the South trying to exert overt control over itself after having a hand in creating states like Kansas and Missouri. Civil Rights turmoil swept through the country in the 60's with the epicenter in the South. And today the South dominates national politics to the extent that no Democratic president has come from anywhere else since JFK.
      In the South, local politics can only be described as what people in other places call "corrupt". It's not so much about party here as it is in the North (and by North I don't mean Canada, Alaska, or North Florida - I mean New England/New York), it's a curious mix of personality and apathy. I was watching the History Channel yesterday - something about El Cid 1000 years ago. In that time, Spain was mostly Islamic, controlled by the Moors. What I found interesting was that small regions were controlled by Moorish kings, who didn't actually rule cities and villages. Rather, they fought battles and ran a protection racket, taking tribute from their subjects and terrorizing those who wouldn't pay. There were also Christian kings who actually took tribute from the minor Moorish kings, even though they rarely ventured into Moorish territory. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Middle-Age Spain went about their daily lives, only taking note when some king was fighting another king over their tribute payments and sacking or besieging their cities (which happened all too often). They had no control over the kings and they didn't want any. I guess they figured the kings could do what they wanted and paying tribute was just the way things were.
      That's what Southern politics have been like for decades. Powerful small-town mayors would set up small protection rackets and act like mafia bosses. Even in big cities, mayors felt entitled to reward their political friends and punish their political enemies, while the populace kept voting them into office, not caring to know about the corruption and assuming it was just part of life. This was completely independant of party or race or wealth, although all three drive Southern politics. Black mayors, White mayors, Republican or Democrat, rich or... well, they're all rich by definition, politics are purely about local fiefdoms and personalized power.
      A few weeks ago I mentioned how the people in Sandy Springs near Atlanta are trying to become a city. Fulton County, in which they're located and the city of Atlanta have been fighting this for 40 years. Now Republicans control the state legislature and the process is moving forward, which means that the city and county are now on the verge of spending millions of dollars fighting this eventuality. There are pros and cons to incorporation and plenty of ulterior motives. But people want local government and frankly, Georgia's tendency to have counties compete with cities is just weird. Sandy Springs will become a city and that will be a good thing. The problem for Fulton county is that they have become used to living off of that part of town's taxes and using them to subsidize poorer areas of town. Had they been smart, they could have done this forever and the residents of Sandy Springs would have been happy. But what did they do wrong? What happened 40 years ago?
      40 years ago was the Civil Rights era. To northerners, this meant that great injustices were corrected as Americans moved closer to real equality and brotherhood. To Southerners, this meant it was time to pack up and move because the Negroes were about to move into their neighborhoods. White residents fled "the city too busy (evacuating) to hate", as the city became majority Black. They rushed into the quiet suburb of Sandy Springs thus starting the sprawl that has plagued the metro area since. The mayors (all Black since 1973) and the county commission did what any self-respecting White mayor or commission would have done in their places - they consolidated power around their base and set out to punish their political enemies. They sucked taxes out of the affluent Sandy Springs and fed it to the (now very poor) city center. Thus began the fight to incorporate. Apparently when a city incorporates, it is no longer subject to county rules, and Sandy Springs would retain its tax dollars. This has led county leaders to compare the incorporation to the Indian Ocean tsunami which wiped out over 300,000 people and to talk about the inherent racism of such a move.
      The catch is that Sandy Springs really was the product of racism, as Whites fled the prospect of having to live side-by-side with Blacks. But today, as White as Sandy Springs is (78%) and as rich as it is (median household income=$60,000 compared to Fulton's $47,000), it should be incorporated into its own city. It's hard not to see the Republican hand in all this, given that their recent history is one of racial tension. But they're not being racist either. Vindictive, maybe. Southern, absolutely. Sandy Springs is heavily Republican. (White Southerners were solidly Democrat from the Civil War until Civil Rights. By now they're almost solidly Republican.) Atlanta is heavily Democrat. The Republican State legislature is probably taking this step as much to punish the Democrats and reward Republicans as it is to correct an injustice in city administration. Call me a cynic, but it fits the Southern pattern. Democrats have been guilty of it here for a long time, but should that really make it the Republicans' turn? Americans are turning towards more localized government (See neighborhood associations), and although that trend is taking a disturbing turn, it is clearly the way of the future in the US. Still, it is undisputed that the poorer residents in other parts of the county will suffer through no fault of their own, except that they have relied on the county to bring them services such as water, fire, and police protection that have been partially paid for by Sandy Springs. It would behoove the county to figure out ways to fund these services for their other residents quickly and fairly before they find themselves victims of the next backlash of political patronage.


Mike said...

I'm not familiar with the details of this, but it sounds like a situation where a group of people raise all the tax revenue and feel like they have no say in how it is spent. Sounds almost like our country's relationship to England during the colonial years.
Call you a cynic? Ok, you're a cynic. While I don't doubt racial issues have something to do with the current demographics, I don't think white republicans started plotting this 40 years ago. That would take one major conspiracy and coverup.

Ben said...

I think it's more a case of the state legislature allowing these people to have self-determination. Forty years of fighting, and it has never once been allowed to be voted on. If say.. College Park, a heavily black area, had decided to incorportate, they'd have gotten a vote. The reluctance to allow Sandy Springs to even explore incorporation could be seen as reverse racism. At any rate, as someone who went to middle school and high school in Sandy Springs, I can tell you there were plenty of times where Roswell Road had some serious potholes that the county wouldn't bother filling because they were dealing with south county stuff, and that's oh so much more important to them.

Also, there has been some minor talk for many years about north Fulton county breaking off and going back to being Milton County, as it was years before. It would be pretty funny, because Milton County's median income would be lik $40k+, and South Fulton's would be like $28k or so (just guessing, I have no actual numbers).

Scott said...

Mike, I agree it's not a Republican conspiracy. My point is that Southern politics transcends time and party. The Republicans weren't getting even for the sake of Sandy Springs, but just because they could. It's only an current example. There are plenty others involving Blacks vs Whites, Dems vs GOP, Hatfields vs McCoy.
And Ben, College Park's been a city since 1890. The fight against incorporation is most likely 100% financial, although the people fighting won't admit it because they're in the wrong. They're pulling race into this, but it's simply not true. And I predict Milton County will never break away - because the party in control has nothing to gain from it. Southern politics have never been about right vs wrong. They're always about power.

Mike said...

All politics is about power. It sickens me. Truthfully I don't like many politicians. They're all power hungry. Even the republicans. I only tend to side with the republicans because of the two available parties they tend to come down on the side of less taxes and less government programs. But even dubbya has pisses me off with the amount of money he spends.

Ben said...

I guess College Park was a bad example :) I just pulled it out of nowhere as an area in South Fulton.

sideshow bob said...

It would seem that the only recourse to all the shenanigans would be an informed electorate... so it looks like we're screwed.

It was nice to learn about the Moors...maybe they could run the South for a while?

canis lupus said...

What do you call a bunch of politicians trapped in a container at the bottom of the ocean staring at tank marked "Oxygen" but really filled with cyanide gas? A really good start. Whoops, my dark side emerges again.