Op-ed submission by Project 21
Atlanta is called the “city too busy to hate.” But some political activists found the time.
Kasim Reed, a state senator, just won a runoff election to become Atlanta’s next mayor by a mere 714 votes. On Election Day, however, he received only 36 percent of the vote next to city councilwoman Mary Norwood’s 46 percent.
Reed’s campaign was boosted by activists who opposed Norwood because she would have become Atlanta’s first white mayor in 36 years. They felt the loss of a black face behind the mayor’s desk equaled a loss of black political power.
Changes in Atlanta since Maynard Jackson became the city’s first black mayor in 1973 helped Norwood’s political star rise. The city successfully lured major businesses (and the 1996 Olympics) and actually grew by 100,000 people since 2000 at a time when the populations of other cities declined.
According to University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, “Black voters have been moving further and further out of Atlanta, and whites who wanted to be closer to work have been moving in.”
Norwood campaigned as someone who would represent all of Atlanta’s residents. She received prominent black endorsements. But, in the end, there were some who felt the main issue should not be schools, transportation, economic development or fighting crime. They only wanted a mayor who looks like them.
Several hundred votes kept Atlanta’s black political dynasty intact.
Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was broadly supported by Atlantans of all races, but Morehouse College history professor Alton Hornsby, Jr. said: “Obama’s election last year was more of a fluke than any indication we are getting closer to post-racialism… The lid has been lifted on the truth that was already there.”
It would be bad enough for this to be an isolated case, but it is not. The former struggle to increase access for black candidates has morphed into a quest to retain political power:
* In 2008, primary opponent Nikki Tinker ran a commercial comparing incumbent U.S. Representative Steve Cohen to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Cohen, who just successfully led the effort for Congress to apologize for slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws, was considered unacceptable by some simply because the district is 60 percent black and he isn’t.
* Leaders of the Maryland NAACP in October voted overwhelmingly for a resolution to strip the governor of the authority to appoint the mayor of Baltimore should that office become vacant. Mayor Sheila Dixon, now convicted of embezzlement, was awaiting trial at the time. While her conviction is not a felony, she may yet be forced from office. Baltimore NAACP president Marvin L. Cheatham remarked to the Baltimore Sun: “Here you have a predominantly African-American city. What if the governor appointed somebody white?… Would he appoint someone Irish to be mayor?” Maryland’s governor actually has no such authority. In fact, Dixon – then city council president – became mayor under succession rules when former mayor Martin O’Malley became governor.
* This past August, the U.S. Department of Justice overruled voters in Kinston, North Carolina who voted overwhelmingly the previous November to have nonpartisan elections. The majority-black town, which must receive federal approval for any election changes under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was told by Washington that party affiliations were the only way blacks could elect their “candidates of choice.” No one there, by the way, can remember the last time Kinston voters elected a Republican.
Americans just elected the first bi-racial president. It’s obvious to even the most casual observer that most people have moved on from the identity politics of the past.
It’s a shame that some still embrace race-based politics and can amass and abuse political power. What’s even more shameful is that they were the ones who once demanded equality.
Project 21 member Council Nedd II, the bishop of the Chesapeake and the Northeast for the Episcopal Missionary Church, is the honorary chairman of In God We Trust , a group formed to oppose anti-religious bigotry.