Suburban Secession

Suburban Secession and Color-Blind Racism in Fulton County

As the Georgia legislature opened its 2007 session, Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones declared, “[t]he only way to fix Fulton County is to dismantle Fulton County.” Jones, a Republican representing affluent, majority-white north Fulton, voiced the ardent desire of many of her constituents to form a new Milton County by separating their communities from Atlanta and points south. In his influential work White Flight, historian Kevin Kruse used the metaphor of secession to describe the migration of 160,000 whites from Atlanta to its suburbs between 1960 and 1980. Creating Milton County would be a literal secession, separating more than 240,000 whites and their property in north Fulton from more than 360,000 African Americans and their political representatives to the south by drawing a line on a map. The impact of secession on the county’s poor would also be tremendous; Fulton County would have to meet virtually the same social service needs but would lose forty percent of its property tax base. Residents of Milton County, on the other hand, would be freed from demands on their property made by county officials representing poor and Black constituents.

Creating Milton County would radically transform metropolitan Atlanta, but the secession movement carries significance for understanding racism and social justice beyond the region because it links two of the most significant trends of the recent American past: the rise of “color-blind” racism, and the growing significance of political boundaries in ordering unequal access to resources (whether material, political, or symbolic) in the metropolitan areas where more than eight in ten Americans now live. Suburban Secession will be the first scholarly book connecting color-blind racism and metropolitan fragmentation in a detailed historical case study, offering needed perspective about how both phenomena have become institutionalized in the United States. While Milton County is still only a place in the imaginations of white north Fulton residents, it is nonetheless a site of significance for social justice in metropolitan Atlanta. The battle over its creation demonstrates that American inequality is metropolitan in scale and racist in nature.

Sociologists have described the ascendance of a “color-blind” racism that relies on institutionalized preferences for individualism and cultural scripts that dismiss the significance of racism or vilify racial solidarity among minority groups in order to protect whites’ privileged access to resources. Color-Blind racism did not emerge from the aftermath of the Civil Rights era as a fully formed successor to Jim Crow racism or biological white supremacy, as simply a new way to express atavistic group conflicts. Rather, it was made in reaction to specific conflicts over political, material, and symbolic resources. My historical approach seeks to identify the agents and the actions, words, and thoughts that made it. Those agents worked, spoke, and thought in the context of (and indeed pushed along) the United States’ transformation into a metropolitan nation. Scholars in the “metropolitics” school have argued that this fragmentation and the competition among localities that it engenders are rooted in and institutionalize racism. Undoing fragmentation and reintegrating regions, in this view, is the fundamental civil rights challenge of the 21st century.

By constructing a historical genealogy of color-blind racism in the context of the recent history of metro Atlanta, Suburban Secession brings clarity to this debate. Struggles over space unfolded as African Americans became a political majority in Atlanta around 1970 and then in Fulton County a decade later, while white business elites and an increasingly influential bloc of affluent white suburbanites retained command of significant economic resources and shifted property wealth to the favored quarter of north Fulton. Black Atlanta leaders were among the first to confront what became a nationally repeated structural problem of politically controlling a city with a declining economic base and decreasing significance in its region, requiring them to negotiate a political terrain characterized by class fissures among Black constituencies and spatial fissures among business and homeowner capitalists, a terrain that encouraged racial distrust.

Some of this distrust resembled older prejudices. But cultural vestiges of the pre-Civil Rights era were ultimately less important than battles over new economic and symbolic resources anchored in metropolitan property, which fed new forms of racial inequality and conflict. White suburbanites learned to defend their interests through race-neutral discourses of private property and local control, and to protect those privileges by strengthening suburban autonomy. Massive white migration from outside the area to north Fulton in the 1980s and 1990s exacerbated spatial and racial tensions in county politics, which nurtured in many politically active north Fulton whites a powerful sense that they were the true victims of race-conscious politics.

More recently, north Fulton whites have become a powerful constituency in Georgia’s Republican and conservative majority, and have accomplished many of their spatial goals: preventing annexation by Atlanta, incorporating several new suburban cities, limiting the ability of Fulton County government to tax their property, and advancing the cultural legitimacy and institutional backing of secession. Their success has in large measure depended on their ability to redefine an old anti-racist political argument–that justice required Black Atlantans to influence and benefit from, the wealth of the region–as illegitimate race consciousness.

As recent reports on demography and economic activity by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan America Project make clear, the United States has become a metropolitan society. Governing, planning, and improving metropolitan America requires facing up to the way that the political organization of metropolitan space can lessen or exacerbate inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity, and the ways that racism has worked to obstruct metropolitics based in equity and shared prosperity. Fulton County is a bellwether. Affluent white residents of adjacent DeKalb County are following Fulton’s path toward secession by the intermediate step of incorporating new cities, and a secession movement in Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana has recently attracted national attention. Understanding the metropolitical history that has led Fulton County to the brink of breakup offers vital insight for understanding all American metro areas, where political boundaries express a politics of separation that may differ in degree from secession more than in kind.