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Is there a white conspiracy to keep power out of the hands of Atlanta blacks? 

They might as well have painted a double line in the middle of Ponce de Leon and made it official, a white line on the north side and a black line on the south.
-- Tom Wolfe, from A Man in Full

Before former DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey left office in late December, he fired a few parting shots.

His failed try at another term, he said, could be blamed not on rumors of misconduct in office but on the concerted efforts of a white, northside business cartel and the news media it feeds.

In assessing blame for his own political misfortunes, Atlanta's mayor, Bill Campbell, has leveled similar invective at opponents of the city's affirmative action program, as well as at reporters, political adversaries and his critics in the business community. Campbell called federal investigators looking into alleged corruption at City Hall "forces of evil."

"The FBI has never been a friend of the African-American community, and they're not a friend now," Campbell said on a black-oriented radio station.

The collective reaction of white people to race-bias allegations in the "city too busy to hate" is likely an eye-rolling "there he goes again." Detractors claim playing the race card is a simple way to deflect attention and mobilize a political base around an easily definable issue.

But if the tactic is that simple and explained away so easily, why does it work?

What if Campbell, Dorsey and others who level the charge of racially motivated politics, unfair treatment and biased media coverage really believe they are victims?

And what if they're right?

White conspiracy or race card?

In 1996, a Clark Atlanta University survey of 1,112 black Atlanta residents found that 65 percent believed a few big interests run the city. Fifty-nine percent believed the white power structure prevents elected blacks from helping the black community -- though nearly an identical number said they felt black elected officials were willing to be co-opted.

Steven Muhammad, the southern regional director for the Million Family March, puts it more simply: "The general perception is that the white business community is engaged in a conspiracy against the black community."

Just look at the heads of all the major companies in Atlanta -- they're white, says Rodney Williams over lunch at Mammy's Kitchen on Memorial Drive.

You just expect some political tit-for-tat, says fellow diner Otis Petties, and white businesses have the money.

Most recently, underlying fears of a white conspiracy have found voice in complaints over gentrification -- the process in which upper-class homeowners buy up property in traditionally lower- or middle- class neighborhoods, which drives up rent and forces out longtime residents.

State Rep. Billy McKinney of Atlanta has called gentrification "just a nice word for taking black folks' property." Kandi Thomas, who was forced to leave the McLendon Gardens apartment complex in Lake Claire to make room for new townhomes, told CL in November that gentrification is "a conspiracy going around to get all the black people out of the city, with all these lofts and new homes going up everywhere for white people. It's an effort to try to change the racial composition of the city."

Even Cynthia Tucker, the Atlanta Constitution's editorial page editor and a vocal critic of the mayor, admitted in a Sept. 24 column that Atlanta's black political leaders have plenty of available capital when they want to talk about how they're being treated unfairly because of race -- whether they truly believe it or not. She noted that, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, "70 congressmen have faced criminal charges during the past 25 years, and 15 percent of them are minorities -- or four times their percentage in Congress."

Muhammad cites the 1995 case of Mel Reynolds, a black congressman from Illinois, who received five years in prison for having sex with a 16-year-old girl. White congressional contemporaries received virtual slaps on the wrist for similar offenses.

The examples aren't just political. Black residents living in large swaths of south Atlanta need only open their eyes to see what the author Tom Wolfe described in A Man in Full as the "glossy pomposity of the center of the world" -- the city's northside and downtown -- and higher crime and fewer amenities in their own backyards.

Then, there's Coca-Cola's recent mega-settlement of a discrimination lawsuit, similar lawsuits filed against Georgia Power and Home Depot, a 6 percent student population for blacks at the University of Georgia, and chronic allegations of racial profiling by police.

"There's a level of frustration in the black community that white people can barely comprehend. It's not hard to tap into that resentment," says Rick Allen, a local political commentator and author of Atlanta Rising, which centers on Atlanta's history between 1946 and 1996.

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