When I returned to Atlanta in 2001, after a 20-year detour to Florida, I asked friends to describe the city in three words. I heard a lot about business and development, about jobs and opportunities, about congestion and congestion and congestion on the roads.
A few people said "race," but generally in an embarrassed, looking-down-at-their-shoes mumble. Finally, one gent, a white politician, was blunt: "Race, racist, racism, those are the three words."
Atlanta got a lot of mileage off of the "city too busy to hate" puffery. But that's all it was, puffery. Race defines, underscores and insinuates itself into every major political race and policy decision in Georgia, and especially in Atlanta.
When the Clayton County School Board acts dumb and dumber, the undercurrent snickering by many whites is that this is just more proof that blacks are incapable of running things. The daily newspaper in town has been on a roll bolstering such chat in recent days – with breathless reports on the somewhat abrasive speech by an African-American Cobb County commissioner and turmoil in Lithonia.
Even when the press avoids digging into, say, blemishes on Mayor Shirley Franklin's regime or the antics of DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, a popular assumption – based on more than a few facts and examples – is that the media fears being called racist.
The lightning rod du jour is Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington, who lectured some black criminal defendants – after he asked white lawyers to step out of the courtroom. The daily newspaper had the temerity to describe the episode as an attempt "to re-segregate the courtroom."
Common sense makes it clear that there was no such effort by Arrington, a veteran black civil rights leader in Atlanta who spent 28 years on City Council, 18 as president. Resegregate? An incredibly false and inflammatory depiction, but enough to create a firestorm that spread to the national media.
Phil Kent, former editorialist at the Augusta Chronicle and general go-to guy for right-wing causes, blasted Arrington as a "loser" on WAGA/Channel 5's "The Georgia Gang." "Segregation was wrong 45 years ago, and it's just as wrong today," Kent said in an interview. That pious intonation ignores the obvious difference: Real segregation subjugated an entire race, depriving blacks of education, voting, money and often their lives.
Arrington's message to the black men facing prison in his courtroom was obliterated by the oh-so stupid media reports. The truth? "I looked at those faces in my courtroom," Arrington told me, "and I was torn. All of the rights we have gained, worked so hard for with our blood and sweat, and we're going backwards. We're retrogressing.
"They come in here every Thursday, with their pants hanging off their behinds, and I ask myself, 'What was the struggle all about?' All of these young people have no morals, no values. I told them, 'Go get a high school education, be someone, do right.' Otherwise what's waiting for them is a trip to Reidsville [state prison] or being murdered or murdering someone."
Arrington pauses, shakes a finger, and adds: "Was that racist, my wanting to talk to these young men? There was no official business conducted, I just had something to say that they needed to hear. No, it wasn't racist, but that's how the media has tried to make it."
Nonetheless, the real racists -- from the polite closet cases in Buckhead, Sandy Springs and Marietta, to the more rabid variety who pine for the days of Confederate flags and white sheets -- rejoiced. The website of the white supremacist American Renaissance posted this comment, typical of many others: "I don't think the judge is fundamentally much different than the defendants. Affirmative action is a way to pay blacks to behave themselves. I imagine if you gave all the defendants an affirmative-action judgeship, then they would sort of behave themselves, too."
All of that resonated with the right-wing disinformation machine's criticism of Barack Obama for not pissing all over his minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who may have used harsh language but was largely accurate in describing America as an often mean place for blacks.
And while Arrington was suffering the slings and darts of opportunists, racists and dim-bulb journalists, no one bothered to think through the underlying racism of his attackers.
After all, the biggest bunch of morons in Georgia is not the Clayton County School Board, and certainly not Judge Arrington. The prize goes to the Georgia General Assembly, which just finished a session in which the usual whoring went on with lobbyists, but the boobs were even too stupid to stop fighting long enough to pass their pet (although totally useless) bills. If anything could be concluded from the legislative session, it's that white boys, especially Republicans, don't have the intelligence to govern anyone, even themselves.
That no one should make that comparison is typical. Heck, there's been little serious effort – none comparable to the attacks on Obama – to hold John McCain accountable for the hateful ministers he sucks up to: John "Hate Catholics" Hagee, and the late (praise the Lord) Jerry "Segregationist, Pro-Apartheid, Hate Gays" Falwell, for a start.
Back to Arrington's message. The most commendable thing about his chat with black defendants was the recognition of a real problem. Yes, blacks commit disproportionately more crime. For the racist, that's the end of story, and proof of inferiority. The reality is more complex. Blacks have been systematically impoverished, first by slavery, then by laws that effectively re-enslaved them during the Jim Crow days. The underclass often sees crime as the only way up and out – that may not be sound thinking, but it's the "truth" on the streets. That, in turn, fuels the stereotypes of blacks, stereotypes fostered by the media.
We need more Arringtons in Atlanta, people willing to speak the difficult truth to black kids before they become imprisoned black kids.
We need a few white Arringtons also, leaders who will denounce the majority's racism, more subtle than yesteryear's but just as corrosive. For a start: The Legislature's dissing of Atlanta is little more than a racist appeal to rural Georgia. And initiatives such as the secession of white suburbs to form new cities is, indeed, the real attempt to resegregate Georgia.