Virtual Voices

Atlanta's lightening up, demographically

Issues

This morning, Atlanta's mayoral runoff election between city councilwoman Mary Norwood, who is white, and former state Sen. Kasim Reed, who is black, was still too close to call. In the general election last month, Norwood won 46 percent of the vote, while Reed finished second with 36 percent, splitting the black vote among other African-American candidates. Since no candidate received a majority, a runoff between the top two became necessary and was held yesterday. The real possibility of a white mayor in Atlanta is representative of a steady transition in the city's demographics.

Atlanta residents have been proud of having decades of black leaders in government and business, and the city hasn't had a white mayor since Sam Massell was defeated in 1973. According to census data, the city is composed of about 57 percent African-Americans and 38 percent whites, and between 2000 and 2007 the black population declined from 61 percent. Why? Over the past 20 years, whites have been moving back into the very neighborhoods they fled when blacks moved in following the civil rights movement. Atlanta's "gentrification" has created quite a backlash of resentment and confusion among many blacks in the city.

When I fly into Atlanta, like I did this Thanksgiving, I remain amazed at the huge mural of an young African-American girl with outstretched arms facing the escalators and welcoming passengers to Atlanta as they head to the baggage claim area. Growing up there I was nurtured in a community of African-Americans where lifestyles of blacks like those presented on The Cosby Show were not fictitious. I even have a black doctor/lawyer couple in my family. Atlanta is a city where the black middle-class thrives and a place where blacks are key leaders in many sectors. To see a leadership change in the mayor's office would mean a new way of thinking about the city. I am not surprised, then, to find these demographic changes stirring real emotion.

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In 2003, Footnotes, a newsletter of the American Sociological Association, published some of the angst that people felt back when the gentrification started: "The white folk moved out and are now paying anything to move back," said Frank Edwards, an Atlanta resident. "Regentrification, that's just a nice word for taking black folks' property," said Billy McKinney, a former Georgia State Representative.

In Atlanta, Kirkwood, East Lake, and East Atlanta are predominantly black neighborhoods that began to change nearly 20 years ago, as the newsletter noted:

Between 1990 and 2000 the white population in these neighborhoods doubled. The most dramatic racial change was in Kirkwood, where white residents increased from 1% to 14% of the population between 1990 and 2000. This area had not experienced such a shift since the 1960s. Between 1960 and 1970, these neighborhoods changed from being almost 100% white to almost 100% black. In Kirkwood, for example, 91% of residents were white in 1960; by 1970, 97% of the population was black.

If the final ballot count results in a victory for Norwood, this may signal the end of an era of black middle-class dominance in Atlanta. As whites move back into the city it will certainly continue to change the racial makeup and priorities of city government. Demographic shifts are a normal part of urban life, and Atlanta's residents, like many other minority residents of large cities, are facing the reality that there are two-sides of the "change" coin that President Obama emphasized during his presidential campaign.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of theology and ethics at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of Liberating Black Theology. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.

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