Race doesn't matter (ha!) 

Crime wave and the bleaching of Atlanta pose huge hurdles for multiculturalism

Scene 1: The Atlanta police officer was a five-year veteran, his idealism bruised but still alive. He was perplexed at what he called a "lackadaisical" response by city potentates to the mounting crime wave in the city. He stood up at the table at a Starbucks in Midtown. He sat down. He fidgeted.

Basically, he didn't like my question: What's really wrong with the Atlanta police?

The officer had me reaffirm that his name wouldn't get into print. And reaffirm my reaffirmation. He fidgeted some more. He kept scratching the top of a blond crew-cut head.

"OK, I know what I'm going to say isn't politically correct," the officer said. "But I think it's true. It's race. It's racism."

The cop quickly scooted his chair back – as if fearing I was about to explode in a fireball of liberal righteous indignation at the suggestion that race still makes a difference in society.

Scene 2: Renée Glover, the 13-year chief of the Atlanta Housing Authority, was explaining why the only hope for many poor people is the eradication of public housing, the incubating nests for poverty and all its related plagues.

"I believe human beings have unlimited potential," Glover says. "But environment matters. If you zoom in and see who is in the [public] housing, it's single women with children, the elderly and disabled. The criminals are coming in to prey on them. Our strategy was not to export the poor [by tearing down housing projects], but to create healthy areas."

I suggest that that sounds like social engineering. "It's all social engineering," Glover responds.

Joe Stalin famously praised socialists as "engineers of the human soul." He was talking specifically about writers, and I'm flattered, but the phrase is often cited to disparage governments, idealists and demagogues who want to radically retool human nature.

Three-and-a-half decades ago, after Maynard Jackson was first elected mayor, the Atlanta Police Department was bitterly divided by race. All the intervening years – with all the advances of African-Americans and the epiphany of tolerance among many, maybe most, whites – haven't changed that. Chief Richard Pennington surrounds himself with mostly black aides, while white officers feel that plum assignments or bitter penalties are doled out according to skin color.

I've talked to more than 50 officers in recent months, and many – including a dozen black officers – feel race is an (if not the) overriding issue demoralizing cops. It ranked second among most of the officers, with lousy pay being the most nettlesome problem.

Glover, meanwhile, has done a great job. The question is: What was the job? She's often accused of demolishing public housing to make way for yuppie anthills. The former tenement residents are handed subsidy vouchers for rent – but find a diminishing supply of intown landlords who will rent to them. Thus, critics of Glover contend, poverty and crime are dispatched to the 'burbs.

To my mind, Glover is on target.

But there's a catch. The housing authority is contributing to the bleaching of Atlanta. Mayor Shirley Franklin has complained to an audience in New York that African-Americans -- by which she means the elite of the old Jackson machine -- are in danger of losing power.

Franklin is right. Mary Norwood last week released a poll – by the same national research firm that worked for Franklin – that shows the Buckhead councilwoman in the lead in a mayoral contest against City Council President Lisa Borders, Fulton Commissioner Robb Pitts, former City Council President Cathy Woolard, Councilman Caesar Mitchell and state Sen. Kasim Reed.

Underscoring the sensitivity of a white return to the mayor's office, Norwood was quick to tell me of the biracial support reflected in the poll. But you can't ignore the seismic rumblings of what a victory by Norwood – or any white – would mean to Atlanta. Race baiters of both colors would have a field day.

All of that brings me to Robert D. Putnam, a highly regarded and unabashedly mainstream Harvard professor who recently published a disconcerting study, "E Pluribus Unum, Diversity and Community in the 21st Century."

"New evidence from the U.S. suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to 'hunker down,'" Putnam concluded. "Trust (even of one's own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer." Most studies, the professor recounts, show "the more we are brought into physical proximity with people of another race or ethnic background, the more we stick to 'our own' and the less we trust the 'other.'"

So in this city – one that is, as our old motto proclaimed, too busy to hate – are we chasing fool's gold when we hold hands, sing "Kumbaya" and embrace multiculturalism?

Our housing policies – both those conjured by the "market" and those implemented by government officials such as Glover – have brought prosperous whites back to the city. Is the payback the loss of black power? Is another payback soaring crime rates – and the tabloid depiction of crime as, alternatively, white cops killing elderly black women or black thugs kidnapping white lawyers off the streets of trendy neighborhoods?

The one missing ingredient necessary to answer those questions is leadership. Mayor Franklin, never charismatic, is now in full bunker mode – when she bothers to visit Atlanta. The current crime wave hasn't crested as high as previous tsunamis – but Franklin and Pennington haven't a clue about how to respond, other than circling the wagons around their shot-full-of-holes reputations.

Crime fuels racial distrust and hatred, as Putnam observed. We know that – just relisten to the radio commercial Franklin, former Mayor Andy Young and Congressman John Lewis made last fall declaring that blacks may die if whites again capture political power.

So we can cheerfully look for more of the same in the 2009 city elections. Almost every candidate will deny race is a factor. Every candidate who makes such a claim will be a liar.

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