How Racism Preordained the Atlanta Transit Mess

Key to understanding the transit disaster in Atlanta is grasping the degree to which racial tensions have shaped the structure and reach of municipal government in the area.

Scott Cunningham/Getty

The transit disaster in Atlanta wasn’t just the product of poor planning and a population unaccustomed to driving in the snow—though those played a part. At base, it was the product of a small government ideology that dominates in the neighboring suburbs, and is tied to long-standing racial tensions. A version of this point was made well this week on CNN, by retired Lt. General Russell Honore’:

Atlanta needs the same kind of government that mayors in New York City have—where the mayor controls the city and everything around the city, and the mayor can make decisions about road closures, school closures…

We don’t have that in Atlanta—we have a lot of small government, run by the counties. As a result of that, we’re in a lot of trouble.

And why does Atlanta lack control of its major roads and other transit arteries (to say nothing of the limited scope of the transit system in the area)?

The demographics of the area give us a bit of a clue. Cobb County, a suburban area that sits adjacent to the city and shares some its infrastructure, is 66 percent white. Atlanta proper, by contrast, is 54 percent black.

As Philip Bump notes for The Wire, that difference has been a massive stumbling block for efforts to expand the Metropolitan Atlanta Transit Authority (MARTA), and give the area a unified approach to transportation. “Cobb County,” he writes, “doesn’t use MARTA because Cobb County has consistently blocked expansions of MARTA into its jurisdiction. And that is at least in some part because of race.”

To back that up, he quotes from Atlanta-Journal Constitution columnist Jay Bookman, who—last year—outlined the controversy over the Atlanta Braves’ decision to move their stadium to Cobb. Bookman notes that, after the announcement was made, the head of the county’s taxpayer association “worried that it was merely a Trojan horse used to disguise the larger goal of smuggling MARTA inside the county walls, with all the “crime” that would bring.”

If you have any knowledge of past transit fights in the area, you know that this is a barely-coded reference to black people. Indeed, it’s important to see that this isn’t wasn’t an isolated expression of racial fear. In a 2006 paper in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research—titled Secessionist Automobility: Racism, Anti-Urbanism, and the Politics of Automobility in Atlanta, Georgia—Jason Henderson offers a brief summary of the racial tensions around MARTA:

Since it was established in the 1960s, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority was jokingly referred to as ‘Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta’. […]

Coverage of transit debates in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed how deeply race mattered. In suburban Cobb County, the chairman of a local anti-tax organization declared that ‘MARTA-style mass transit would lead to an increase in crime and the construction of low-income housing in Cobb County’ (Atlanta Constitution, 1998).

It’s easy to see how the fragmented, “small” government of the area is—at least in part—a product of these racial fears. Rules and structures that hamper Atlanta’s ability to do anything—like close roads and schools—are useful ways of maintaining existing racial barriers.

None of this is to say that there aren’t legitimate concerns here, or that race is the driving force behind the particular institutional configuration of this area. But it is hard to disentangle this variety of small government conservatism from the white racial parochialism it, to some degree, works to protect.

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In any case, what we have in the Atlanta transit disaster is a case study in how racial fear and resentment can mix with politics to produce a status quo that handicaps lawmakers, and leaves them unable to deal with predictable, but serious, events. And given the extent to which racial tension is a fact of life in many urban areas, it’s a lesson worth listening to.