Friday, August 28, 2009

Is the Turpeau memo racist?

Posted By on Fri, Aug 28, 2009 at 8:03 PM

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Judging from many Fresh Loaf commenters, the answer to that is, "Duh!"

But that wasn't my first reaction when I read the instantly notorious memo by longtime political operative Aaron Turpeau, which calls for black leaders in Atlanta to rally behind a single black mayoral candidate in order to avoid seeing the election of Mary Norwood.

To me, the memo wasn't racist so much as it was a plea for naked self-interest — although arguably wrong-headed, outdated and certainly politically incorrect.

Let me explain. I've always defined racism as the belief that there are inherent differences — character, intellect, ability, etc. — between people that directly result from race. Racism can be in the form of conscious prejudice — Jews are greedy, blacks are lazy, white men can't jump, etc. — or the vague sense that one person is in some way inferior to another simply because of the color of his skin.

But I don't think Turpeau was motivated by the kind of racism defined above. In fact, he was quite clear in explaining his goal:

There is an unstated assumption that having a black mayor in Atlanta is equal to having a black social, economic and political agenda or at least someone in office who would be sensitive to that agenda if not a full promoter of that agenda

In other words, having an African American mayor is a benefit to black Atlantans and their "agenda"; therefore, blacks should take steps to ensure that City Hall stays black.

Frankly, this mode of thinking dates back to the early career of Maynard Jackson, a time when achieving political clout meant, in the words of the day, "having a seat at the table." Black Atlantans felt shut out of the corridors of power and winning the mayor's office was seen as key to getting a foot in the door.

That mindset may seem dated, obsolete and even a little sad to you and me — and, based on her reaction, Shirley Franklin — because it suggests an inescapable social divide that most people would prefer to move beyond. But I can assure you that Turpeau isn't the only prominent black Atlantan who believes electing a black mayor is the only way to protect the interests of the black community.

But is it racism? I was discussing the issue with another journalist who has me halfway convinced that my initial thought was wrong. Turpeau's arguing for the election of a candidate simply based on her race — notice he made no claim that Lisa Borders would make a great mayor — is no different, my friend argues, than a white community leader calling for whites need to reclaim City Hall.

On the other hand, few of us would blink an eye to hear that a Latino chamber of commerce somewhere has endorsed a local Hispanic candidate. We'd naturally assume the group figured a Latino would best serve Latino interests. Is that racist?

Help me out here; I'm confused.

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