But black elected officials, as political scientist
Jerry Watts pointed out in the November 17, BC
cover story "What
Use Are Black Mayors," have most often emerged from establishment
circles that were never in the "vanguard of the continuing
civil rights struggle" or parts of any insurgent political
formations. The economic
justice agenda of King era prophetic leadership was discarded.
The concerns of the new black political and business class were
largely limited to its own priorities: voting rights, affirmative
action and minority business set-asides. The demand for societal
economic justice was replaced by the quest for "community
economic development," which usually meant creating black millionaires. The thought was
and still is that creating black millionaires helps everybody.
Black contractors hire other blacks, spend their money with other
blacks, reinvest in black communities, and the rising tide of
their prosperity circulates throughout the African American community.
With the building of the nation's largest airport, a project which
would have gone forth no matter who had been Atlanta's mayor,
Maynard Jackson had a unique one-time multibillion dollar jackpot
of contracts to award, an environment which provided the best
possible test of the theory that empowering black businesses would
result in the enrichment of the entire African American community.
Thirty years later, the results are in. The experiment
has failed. It is now indisputably clear that economic development,
as preached, practiced and administered by our African American
business and political elite does not lead to economic justice.
The bankruptcy of the black-business-lifts-all-boats theory is
evident throughout black America, and in Atlanta
most of all. The "black-Mecca" which leads the nation
in numbers of African American millionaires also leads the nation
in the percentage of its children in poverty. Maynard Jackson's
former chief of staff Shirley Franklin today presides over 475,000
Atlantans in the hollowed out core of a metro area ten times that
size. For a generation, Georgia's white business and political
elite have relentlessly punished Atlanta for the sin of being
ruled by black faces, confining most public and private investment
to the sprawling suburban donut that surrounds the city. Hence
metro Atlanta is the least densely populated of the nation's large
cities. The airport, freeways and a small number of subway lines
are already built.
The only remaining goodies left to hand out in Shirley
Franklin's Atlanta are the few remaining public services that
can be privatized, the future tax revenue which can be diverted
to favored bankers and middlemen via bond issues, and the land
under the city itself, which can be eased into the hands of well-connected
developers by a number of means.
Strip Mining the Public Sector
One of the Clinton administration's chief domestic
priorities was something it called "reinventing government."
The happy talk was that "reinvention" would introduce
competition, "entrepreneurial spirit," and a "customer
service ethic" into the functioning of state, federal and
local governments. Behind the happy talk, the "reinventing
government" initiative was about privatization
of a vast array of governmental functions on all levels from food
service to fleet maintenance, from purchasing and payroll to prisons.
The push for privatization on the part of Democrats was a response
to corporate campaign contributors, who aimed to make up for declining
rates of corporate profit by cannibalizing the public sector.
Corporations that received the contracts got, in
many cases, a guaranteed minimum rate of profit, which could be
improved upon by lowering wage and benefit levels of the formerly
public employees, by making the public pay "user
fees" for services and through other means. State and
local governments were required, often as a condition for receiving
federal funds, to identify which components of their operations
would be most attractive to privatizers, and to bid them out.
Payroll, vehicle fleet operations, child support enforcement and
dozens of the functions of thousands of state, county and municipal
governmental units around the country were parceled out to a relative
handful of corporations. Needless to say, the corporate beneficiaries
of privatization were often direct and indirect campaign contributors
to federal, state and local officials.
For the black community, there were many downsides
to this wave of privatizations. Due to the public sector's relative
lack of racial discrimination, government workforces historically
contained more than their share of minorities. Frequently these
government workers had achieved union contracts, civil service
protection, medical care and defined
benefit pensions. For generations, those steady if underpaid
government jobs had been a lifeline that helped lift many black
families, chunks of whole communities out of poverty and into
relative middle class prosperity. Another downside of privatization
is that when government functions are taken over by private corporations,
elements of their processes and outcomes become private property,
and are thus less susceptible to public oversight and democratic
For the most part, black business and political
leaders either lacked the vision to see what was happening, or
simply did not value the stability of working class communities
and families whose wages were lowered, whose job security was
imperiled, who lost health care, pensions and some of the hard-won
political influence over the process of governance which made
their own emergence as a black "leadership" class possible.
For black business and political "leaders," the black
masses were temporary and expendable allies. They revised their
speeches to include pro-privatization buzz words like public-private
competition, and entrepreneurship, and set about pursuing
their more enduring interests, like securing a portion of the
contracts for minority vendors, and a share of campaign contributions
By 1998 in Atlanta, where the black business and
political class had installed itself a generation ago, Mayor Bill
Campbell did the nation's largest water privatization deal yet,
handing over the city's water system for 20 years to a private
contractor. For this, Mayor Campbell was awarded a "Best
Practice Recognition" by the corporate-funded US Conference
of Mayors. But in a pattern
that has repeated itself on several continents, the city's water
contractor ushered in exorbitant rate increases and failed to
deliver. Lots of white and well to do people live in Atlanta,
so the failures were big
news. Atlanta's water privatization deal unraveled in spectacular
public fashion four years later, early in the term of Campbell's
successor, current Mayor Shirley Franklin, who was forced to void
the contract and hand the water department back to the city of
A key document produced
by the new mayor's transition team was the Bain
Report, early versions of which recommended a long string
of city functions to be "marketized" and outsourced
the report said, beginning in 2002, from information technology
to garbage collection and vehicle fleet management. Despite public
speeches in which Mayor Franklin promised to use the Bain report
as "the blueprint" for her administration, the public
fiasco that followed Atlanta's disastrous water privatization
made more big-ticket giveaways of public resources to well-connected
privatizers too politically risky. Atlanta's new mayor would
have to find other ways to transfer the scarce public resources
of her city to private hands.
Public-Private Giveaways: The Atlanta BeltLine
stands for Tax Increment Financing. Originally sold to the public
as a means of fostering beneficial economic activity in "blighted"
or "underdeveloped" areas, TIFs are now legal in forty-seven
states and the District of Columbia. Here's how they work: TIF
districts are created in areas where local government wants and
expects property values to rise as a result of new construction,
rehab and ongoing economic activity. When property values go
up as a result of such activity, a local government normally expects
to collect and keep more property taxes which it can use for things
like roads, schools, sewers, infrastructure, police and fire protection.
But in a TIF district local government freezes the amount of property
tax revenue it keeps to use for schools, roads, sewers, etc. at
pre-development levels for 20, 23, or 25 years depending on local
The property tax revenue collected within a TIF
district in excess of pre-development tax levels goes into a special
fund which can only be spent on improvements inside the TIF district.
A spending authority representing property owners within the TIF
district is usually appointed to spend the set-aside property
taxes. In order to get its hands on the two decades of "excess"
property tax revenues up front the spending authority uses a bond
issue to borrow the money, often at ruinous interest rates that
obligate the bonding authority to repay better than two dollars
for every one borrowed.
Thus having your factory, home, business or mall
within a TIF district means a big chunk of your property tax bill
is spent right outside your door on stuff you might otherwise
have had to pay for yourself, instead of going to help pay your
fair share for roads, sewers, schools, fire and police protection
like other local property taxpayers who don't have friends in
high places. Nationwide, TIF districts have become lucrative
tax breaks for rich developers and favored corporations, which
often demand them from local officials as a condition of relocating
into, or not relocating out of a city or town. In Georgia, TIFs
are called TADs, or Tax Allocation Districts.
The Atlanta BeltLine is the local name for a deceptively
marketed multibillion dollar bond and real estate scam surreptitiously
pushed into law by Mayor Shirley Franklin in the closing weeks
of 2005. According to the rosy and utterly misleading publicly
funded and developer-inspired propaganda which
has been the only information to appear in the city's media, the
BeltLine is an innovative, forward-looking, environmentally friendly,
smart-growth initiative for the 22 mile loop of abandoned and
underutilized rail right of way encircling most of the city.
The BeltLine is supposed to build tens of thousands of new residential
units around the ring, interspersed with new retail and commercial
development, along with hundreds of acres of new parkland with
plenty of trails for hiking and biking. The whole thing is to
be tied together with a light rail or trolley system, which will
supposedly help alleviate Atlanta's longest-in-the-nation
commutes. A relatively small portion of the housing will be "workforce
housing," the current code word for affordable housing, but
only if sufficient funds can be found for this purpose. Its backers
absurdly claim the BeltLine will create over 40,000 temporary
and 30,000 permanent new jobs, and be the centerpiece for the
city's development in the new century.
The facts are rather different. The BeltLine is
a very large TIF or TAD, as Georgia law calls them. Its Tax Allocation
District creates an extremely lucrative 23 year property tax break
for the rich along the 22 mile loop encircling Atlanta's inner
city. Atlanta's black mayor, along with its mostly white media
and business elite wanted the BeltLine rushed into law before
the end of 2005 so as to freeze the amount of tax revenue retained
by local government and maximize the size of the tax break for
well-connected developers and speculators. To enact the BeltLine
into law on their timetable, the city's black mayor and wealthy
developers needed quick approval of the BeltLine from three elected
local bodies: Atlanta's school board, its city council and the
Fulton County Commission.
But why would black Atlanta knowingly approve the
diversion of billions of dollars over 23 years from its public
schools, from its public health
care systems and its ailing infrastructure to subsidize retail
and housing for the well-to-do in places that developers were
already anxious to build in, with or without tax breaks? What
if there were informed public questions? What if there was an
actual debate? It wasn't as though developers anxious to build
housing for the urban gentry could threaten to take their upscale
condos to Nashville or Birmingham if they didn't get fat public
subsidies and tax breaks. There is only one inner city in each
metro area. Atlanta's black mayor and its mostly white business
elite could not afford public knowledge, wide understanding or
informed discussion about how and for whom the city's economic
development decisions were made.
For the BeltLine development scam to be enacted
into law, Atlanta's black mayor and her developer allies needed
to squelch public discussion of its impact on the affordability
of housing in existing African American neighborhoods. They wanted
no public talk in print or broadcast media about how much money
the BeltLine tax break might take away from Atlanta's cash starved
public schools, and other vital services in Fulton County. They
desired that the cost of repaying the BeltLine loans remain obscure.
They sought to avoid scrutiny of the BeltLine's ridiculous job
creation forecasts, or comparisons with the job creation lies
told to get previous TADs. They wanted no inconvenient public
questions about the wisdom of subsidizing new retail space, which
often simply moves low-wage, no-benefit jobs a short distance
up the street instead of enriching communities.
Thanks to the nationwide corporate media lockdown
of local news and public affairs, they got exactly what they wanted.
In Atlanta, as in every media market, local news coverage that
tells citizens what they need to know to be effective citizens
is virtually nonexistent. In a low-turnout election the day after
Atlanta's city council passed the BeltLine proposal, Shirley Franklin
was re-elected mayor with a Saddam-like total of 93% of votes
But it was an election in which virtually no local
broadcast or print media covered the campaigns for mayor, for
city council or for school board. It was one in which the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, along with its half dozen associated
radio and TV stations endorsed nobody, though the AJC did remember
to endorse candidates in that same day's election for mayor and
city council in Sandy Springs, a wealthy all-white enclave that
finally cut itself loose from Fulton County.
New economic development models that benefit black
communities can only come from new conversations in those communities.
But such conversations have nowhere to take place in cities like
today's Atlanta, where broadcast and print media have all but
closed the public spaces for intra-community discussion. Atlanta's
corporate media have worked to keep development decisions in back
rooms and behind closed doors, insulated from public knowledge
At the same time that local media refused to ask
questions about the impending BeltLine heist, and pointedly ignored
election campaigns for city office, print and broadcast outlets
were awash in laudatory coverage of its mayor. The fact that
Franklin was named the world's ninth
best mayor by one business-related international organization
was news for days, as was TIME
magazine's naming her "Restorer of Faith" and the Kennedy
Foundation Library granting her its 2005 Profiles In Courage award
for her "principled and bipartisan leadership."
With the exception of a single AM
station with less than half a percent of metro listeners,
Atlanta's black media performed no better than the rest. And
with no heat from the black masses, what indeed can be expected
from our black leadership class? Mayor Franklin likes to say
that the BeltLine project will define Atlanta for generations
to come. But whose Atlanta will it be?
HOPE VI and the Emptying Out of Chocolate
If poverty and a lack of decent housing are problems,
what are the solutions? To educate, train and create opportunities
for the poor? To rehabilitate and rebuild affordable housing?
Or simply to demolish the housing and disperse the people? Since
the 1970's across Democratic and Republican administrations alike,
HUD has consistently pursued a policy of demolition, dispersal
of poor and black neighborhoods. At first, the emphasis was on
enabling some families who wanted to leave to voluntarily relocate.
But with the 1992 inauguration of the cynically misnamed HOPE
VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) program,
federal policies shifted their emphasis from voluntary transfer
to wholesale demolition and rebuilding of neighborhoods.
We are aware of no Hope VI demolition project in
which new units been made available to all former residents of
public housing. Most often, large proportions of the previous
population are abandoned to the private market. In cities large
and small across the nation, prominent representatives of the
African American business and political leadership class have
been at the forefront of this process. And as always, Atlanta
has shown the way.
Under the stewardship of Atlanta's four successive
black mayors, its chocolate inner city is emptying out. As Georgia
State Representative and Clark
Atlanta University professor Bob Holmes (D-61) observes in
the preface to The Status of Black Atlanta 2005: