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George on Georgia – Atlanta as the Black Mecca is a myth

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George on Georgia – Atlanta as the Black Mecca is a myth

George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse

Atlanta as the Black Mecca is a myth. But Atlanta thrives on myth making.

Love and Hip Hop. Real Housewives of Atlanta. The Georgia peach on all the movies. We’re projecting an amazing image that is wildly attractive to young Black people who feel stuck wherever they are.

It doesn’t do much for Black people who were born here. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not doing much for most of the Black people moving here. The Black unemployment rate is consistently about twice as high as the white rate. The average household income for a white household in Atlanta is over $80,000 a year. It’s a hair over $30,000 for black households. This, despite a higher proportional number of Black workers with college degrees than almost anywhere in America. Class mobility in Atlanta is lower than any other metro area in America.

Which is to say: Black people overall are doing all the right things here, and the outcomes are worse, not better.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is taking a whack at the problem in earnest, after it endured a summer of protests literally on their front doorstep downtown in Atlanta. I suppose there’s nothing like seeing the windows to your office boarded up amid civil unrest to reconsider priorities. Inequality presents a systemic risk to Atlanta. The business community is starting to get that.

The initiative, ATL Action for Racial Equity, is intended to dismantle systemic racism and “accelerate racial equity by leveraging the size and scale of our business community, and the power of collective impact.”

Not that this is a new problem.

Stephanie Stuckey Benfield – former state senator for Decatur, now a budding pecan mogul – was working for a while for the City of Atlanta as its “chief resiliency officer,” a grant-funded project taking a big-picture look at Atlanta’s weaknesses. Atlanta is actually well situated overall. It’s not going to fall into the ocean eventually like L.A. It’s not going to be underwater in 20 years like Miami or New York. It’s not in tornado alley. We don’t get blizzards. Our local economy is highly diversified, protecting us generally from big industrial disruptions. Water access is a little questionable.

Stuckey identified two big problems: our transportation network is vulnerable (remember the I-85 fire? Snowmaggedon?) And it noted the potential for inequality to become a disruptive force.

The city published the final report in 2017.

I’m writing about this because I think the chamber is sincere. This has the look and feel of old-school Atlanta Way legwork in the face of a serious threat. “The Atlanta Way” is as much a myth as the Black Mecca hype, but It draws on a history of cross-racial cooperation during the Civil Rights era to avoid … well, what we saw in the street this summer. Atlanta’s inequality has finally become a business problem.

The question is whether smaller employers will look at this as an opportunity or a burden. More than four in 10 employees in Georgia work for small firms. The leadership of those firms can react with hostility to a demand for diversity. Some of that is raw racism. Some of that is fear of being the subject of a discrimination lawsuit by a disgruntled nonwhite employee. And some of that is small business fear of their own customers.

Cue the howling from mediocre people, who will call this reverse discrimination.

My answer is the same people who complain about reverse discrimination have nothing to say when the company they work for decides to sideline Black employees because a client doesn’t think Black people should be working on their account. If the choice is either to serve the client or lose the client, a lot of companies will quietly comply. Employers avoid hiring Black professionals not because of some personal bias – oh, heaven forfend – but because some of their clients are racists and they can’t afford to lose that business.

I speak from personal experience here.

A white person with a recent felony conviction is more likely to be called into a job interview than a Black person with an identical resume and a clean criminal record. For this to end, diversity has to be a competitive factor for companies. Firms that are perceived as having a diversity problem need to pay a penalty in lower revenue and fewer clients for this to end.

Thus, two weeks ago, Coca-Cola demanded that its external law firms diversify their staff if they wanted to keep Coke’s business.

The initial members are the local civic stalwarts, companies that are subject to significant government regulation or hold large government contracts and thus have to toe the political line. Georgia Power. AT&T. UPS. Truist. Cox. Delta. Lots of banks. Lots of hospitals and insurers. Lots of accountants.

But Microsoft, Apple and Google are all hungrily eying Atlanta as an escape valve from Silicon Valley’s high price tag. And they’re all wrestling with diversity issues, so they are presuming to some degree that they will be able to pick up nonwhite talent locally.

Microsoft is on board. We will see if this lives up to the hype.

– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate. He also writes for The Intercept

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