by Sara Khaled
So goes Atlanta, so goes the American city. Atlanta is the capital of the South and one of the most iconic cities in the United States—a culture-maker, a center of industry, a Black mecca, and a liberal haven. While the businessmen and politicians helped build this Atlanta, so did the residents: the hip-hop artists, the construction workers, the rural runaways seeking asylum from hate, the Freaknik generation, the churchgoers. Atlanta has long been a forerunner for “opportunity.” However, it now finds itself in the vanguard of another movement: the geographical inversion of the city, or gentrification.
The neighborhoods in which the Dungeon Family made its name have become increasingly “white,” washed out of the people who once claimed residency. Neighborhoods that housed Black middle-class families, paycheck-to-paycheck existences, and shelterless, precarious workers now swarm with million-dollar homes where young, upwardly mobile white people claim their stake. Neighborhoods whites sought only to speak of in hushed tones as “dangerous” and “sketchy” have become playgrounds for a coffee-sipping, thrifting, bar-hopping, tapas-consuming class.
So goes Atlanta, so goes the American city. For the long-time residents of Atlanta, this violent gentrification process is terrifying and endless. However, the repercussions of city-wide eviction of Black and poor residents constitutes a nationwide warning bell. Atlanta’s adoption of this dispossession reflects a particular language and imagery that recalls the specificity of this city’s history. Although unique in some ways, Atlanta’s brand of gentrification will be exported elsewhere. It is imperative that we see its manifestation as a preview of what’s to come.
“The A” in the Making
Atlanta conceived its brand of neo-liberal southern politics in the late 1940s and perfected it in the 1960s and 1970s during the tenure of Mayor Hartsfield, the longest-serving mayor of Atlanta. His Wikipedia page touts his modernization of the city and his work in making the Atlanta airport a worldwide hub. Hartsfield’s greatest ideological legacy, however, is the phrase “The city too busy to hate.” This slogan—modernly co-opted by liberal do-gooders—is a snapshot of Hartsfield’s work to create a city thirsty for racial pacification.
During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, as de-segregation resulted in riots, protests, and a flourishing Black Power movement throughout the US, “The city too busy to hate” was meant to disguise the racial turmoil lurking behind the veil of Atlantan civility. Atlanta was a historical anomaly; it was one of the first cities in the United States to build Black wealth. This reputation made Atlanta a destination for Black people hoping to rise in the ranks. In those days, the Sweet Auburn District was the real Black capital of Atlanta. There, Black banks and businesses existed despite the ferocity of segregation and subordination; there were markets and shops and blocks where middle-class Black families lived, went to church, and existed in relative safety. Atlanta was a rare place where Black people could shirk the confines of extensive economic and social racism. For this reason, a Black elite emerged. To be clear, a Black elite did not have anywhere near the financial and social capital of the white elite, but this Black elite determined modern Atlanta. There is a particular presentation of progressivism which is spared its violent and honest origin and paired with the image of a city government and local leaders. This marriage is a false one, intended to portray racist, sell-out leaders as forgers of peace and progress.
There is a particular presentation of progressivism which is spared its violent and honest origin and paired with the image of a city government and local leaders. This marriage is a false one, intended to portray racist, sell-out leaders as forgers of peace and progress.
Mayor Hartsfield knew that desegregation was quickly changing the landscape of the country. He understood that it was only a matter of time until Atlanta would face this issue. He observed other cities such as Little Rock and saw how changing race relations gutted them of supposed economic stability.(1)Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Day Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2009), 147-149. Hartsfield knew that to be flagrantly racist was to commit a grave mistake. The mayor made a purposeful and strategic decision to make racial transition in Atlanta a peaceful and uncontroversial process. In order for this to happen, Hartsfield had to pacify the racist whites while convincing Black people that desegregation was a welcome process. So, Hartsfield made a decision to partner with the Black elite: bankers, clergymen, and other community leaders.
Throughout his tenure, Hartsfield used these relations to establish a “city too busy to hate,” and in many ways this plan succeeded. Without a doubt, there was turmoil and anger; the KKK had (and has) a home in Atlanta. But it is interesting to note that even Atlanta’s white supremacist politics had to step up to survive. In the late 1950’s, for instance, a group called Metropolitan Association for Segregated Education (MASE) arose in response to the segregationist methodology of the poor whites, which MASE viewed as unrespectable and violent. With middle-class, well-educated whites at the helm, MASE argued for segregation. MASE hid their hate for Black people by claiming they were “saving their children.” Thomas J. Wesley, MASE’s leader, famously said, “Some people are saying ‘Save Our Schools.’ We say ‘Save our children first.’ We want the Negroes to have full opportunity for self-advancement, but see no reason why this necessarily entails their forced inclusion into places where they are not suited.”(2)Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism,141. This “moderate” racist politic extended into housing as well as education. For Atlanta, this became the new normal amongst racist whites. In the same way, what could have been radicalism surrendered to a code of racial pacification even for Black activists. This status quo was challenged further as youth from HBCUs and groups such as SNCC, which emerged from the more conservative, senior SCLC, replaced older black elite. Radical black leaders were pushed out of the margins, killed, or co-opted. The specific brand of politics which emerged from the campaign of terror, intimidation, and manipulation in Atlanta was one of respectability which we see in full sound and color still today. There is a particular presentation of progressivism which is spared its violent and honest origin and paired with the image of a city government and local leaders. This marriage is a false one, intended to portray racist, sell-out leaders as forgers of peace and progress.(3)Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, 36. Meanwhile, in a move to erase the historical and present division between the state and the people, streets are named after civil rights leaders who were once beaten and jailed by the state. The co-option of radicality and the subsequent pervasity of respectability politics haunts this city.
Respectability: A Lie and An Insult
As much as MLK’s legacy graces Atlanta with an overtly egalitarian politic, it also washes over the continued racial strife. The rhetoric of non-violence has become a curse rather than a liberatory message, if it ever was one to begin with. As a friend recently said to me, MLK has become a stuffed animal. If you are wincing upon reading this, imagine the sacrilege that comes with immortalizing it in writing. MLK has been purged of radical ideas; his legacy is reduced to photo-ops and commentary on racial tension in politically correct language in order to “reach across the aisle” or “speak truth to power”. He is touted around, his name flung about carelessly by politicians who mercilessly gut the city of the Black and poor under a guise of liberalism and tolerance. MLK is at once a fitting specter that haunts Atlanta and a total blasphemy to it. Atlanta still suffers from a reputation of respectability and unclear language. Crudely put, respectability politics refer to the idea that if only you act right, you’ll get a seat at the Big Boy’s table. It is a tale fed to dispossessed groups in this country in the form of phrases such as “The American Dream” or the bootstrap-trope. Historically, minorities have been liable to believe and act in accordance with respectability politics, hoping that if only we work hard enough, we won’t be starved for air. However, respectability politics are not only a lie; they are an insult. How dare the powers at large tell people to wipe the blood away from their faces and smile big for the camera? It is obvious that Black leaders who exploit civil rights language are not necessarily committed to MLK’s project. As a friend recently said to me, MLK has become a stuffed animal. If you are wincing upon reading this, imagine the sacrilege that comes with immortalizing it in writing.
As a friend recently said to me, MLK has become a stuffed animal. If you are wincing upon reading this, imagine the sacrilege that comes with immortalizing it in writing.
What does all this have to do with gentrification? A city too busy to hate is actually a city willing to hide it, and if we do not speak plainly, we risk losing the battle for this city being waged from all sides. The Beltline and other projects such as Year of Boulevard and Elevate are trojan horses behind which hide programs of loss, displacement, and dispersal. What makes them all the more confusing to air out is their progressive, community-oriented narrative. However, when partnered with a neo-liberal city structure that cares more about the vendors of Ponce City Market than the midtown homeless, the suspicion goes deep. And as for the status of respectability politics, the one that calls for orderly, single-file lines into Congress if you wish to air a grievance—well, fuck it. Change will not happen by lips too tight to speak it. Atlanta is a beautiful city, but its beauty has been erased each time it has been forced to be less rowdy, more grown, more presentable. Atlanta has battled its own shadows since the day it was commended for staying quiet. The city has struggled with this self-image for decades now, and today will not be the day that it submits.
Atlanta has never been too busy to hate. Hate is muted, translated, and re-configured into words like “the Beltline.” Hate is sold as progressivism. It is our duty to translate the noise into plain language and call a spade a spade. We hope to shed light on these massive infrastructure projects and policies that pretend to be for the people. We hope that Atlanta, a contested battleground of Blackness and radical whispers, withstands the hazy shadow of a white abyss.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Day Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2009), 147-149.|
|2.||↑||Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism,141.|
|3.||↑||Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, 36.|