Breaking The DeKalb Way: DeKalb County In Black And White

V(Find part one here. Find part two here.)

I should probably mention that Sharon Barnes-Sutton lost my vote years ago when she told a crowd at a Democratic breakfast that media scrutiny could be dismissed as the act of white newsrooms looking for trouble in black communities.

I’m sensitive to that. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hired me to cover growth and development in Gwinnett in 2005, but moved me to a crime beat about 18 months later. I left that job in a state of frustration for a grad school scholarship 18 months after that. The paper’s increasing reliance on crime coverage to drive readership made the decision to leave easier.

Long-term unemployment — driven largely by discriminatory hiring practices — untreated mental illness and racial profiling means the reported crime rate in the black community is higher than average, so crime coverage remains a parade of black faces across the television screen and the AJC’s web page. But crime has been falling both locally and nationally since about 1992, and is lower today than it was 50 years ago. The fall has been largest in the black community. And you would never know this if you watch local television … or read the AJC.

I felt like I had been contributing to a lie.

But none of that, none of it, has a thing to do with DeKalb government’s unique corruption problems. The parade of arrests and investigations are demonstrably worse, they’re obviously so, and they have nothing to do with the race of those involved. DeKalb politicians would make news by any fair standard.

And, of course, most of her loudest detractors are black, reflecting the district composition.

Though all but one of the commissioners are Democats, the commission operates along a four-three political split roughly paralleling the north-south divide at Ponce de Leon Avenue. Replacing any one of those four — Barnes-Sutton, Stan Watson, Larry Johnson or Mereda Johnson — with someone opposed to the back-room dealing that leads to things like the failed soccer complex deal last year would immediately begin healing DeKalb’s shattered reputation.

It might be easy to attribute the four-three split solely to race. The four South DeKalb commissioners are black, while Kathy Gannon, Jeff Rader and Republican Nancy Jester are white. Georgia’s checkered history with race and politics, from Jim Crow and Lester Maddox to the AJC’s gurgling comment section cesspool of racism whenever anything about DeKalb politics comes up and State Sen. Tommy Benton describing the KKK as “a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” instead of a hate group rather justifies a little twitchiness around reflexive criticism of black elected officials. 

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. The political split reflects the glaring social divide between rich and poor in metro Atlanta – the widest split of any metro area in America. The problem is that poor is often — but not always — synonymous with black in Georgia.

South DeKalb’s shared economic agenda shows up in the commission’s votes. And if that’s all that was going on, I’d be pushing back hard on criticism. But the corruption problems of DeKalb aren’t excusable, they have little to do with race and they’re completely counterproductive to economic development.

Consider former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones, one of the few black people I’ve ever heard of to lose a discrimination lawsuit for forcing out white employees. At a political forum in DeKalb a few years ago, he pointedly dismissed the investigations, and the negative media coverage, and the incorporation movement that created Dunwoody under his tenure as fueled by white racism.

Never mind that it’s a black activist from Redan, Dr. Kathryn Rice, and a black businessman from south DeKalb, Jason Lary, who have been pressing for the incorporation of Greenhaven and Stonecrest respectively. When advocating for new cities, they make economic arguments — development can’t happen when the prevailing government is viewed as corrupt.

(Fun fact: Jones is running, again, for public office. He’s a candidate for House District 91 near Lithonia. Feel free to donate to one of his opponents, Rhonda Taylor, right here.)

Instead of a sense of contrition from the commission, however, we have Watson resigning unexpectedly last month to run for tax commissioner, a job that pays upwards of $250,000 a year. One might assume that has something to do with being able to pay the $150,000 legal judgment he drew after falsely accusing two women of stealing his wallet at a nightclub. Watson has been censured by the county’s ethics board to little effect for voting on development projects while taking money from the developer. He showed up on FBI wiretaps in a corruption investigation in South Carolina two years ago.

And no one has declared their intent to run for his seat yet. That very developer — Vaughn Irons — may run to replace him.

The whisper campaign against Steve Bradshaw, Barnes-Sutton’s challenger, has begun with detractors highlighting his connection to white people. On Nextdoor, an advocate for Lance Hammonds — a second Barnes-Sutton challenger — started telling neighbors in Eddington Manor in February that “he’s getting the bulk of his contributions from Republicans” and that “that his colleagues are not from my neighborhoods.” Aside from the fact that it’s not actually true — most of Bradshaw’s donors are high-profile Democrats — the implication is clear: Bradshaw’s support by white people in DeKalb should be viewed with suspicion.

“My paternal grandfather, Rev. Jack Johnson Bradshaw was an AME pastor, and a man who did not tolerate excuses for poor performance or bad behavior,” Bradshaw said. One day when Bradshaw was 13, his father went as far as stopping the choir mid-service because they sounded weak.

“He turned around to face the choir, put out his arms and demanded that they stop,” Bradshaw said. “’You don’t sound good. Get yourselves together and start over”’ his father said. “Then he sat back down and waited. … This episode left a profound impression on me. My takeaway was that my grandfather did not settle for sorry. As a result, neither do I. When elected leaders like Sharon Barnes-Sutton default to race as an excuse for any criticism of their performance or behavior they are asking for people to settle for sorry. Frankly, I think that people are sick and tired of that lame deflection. If they aren’t, they should be.”

Steve Bradshaw and Sharon Barnes-Sutton present voters with a deep contrast in experience and style. In a land of big personalities and managerial melodrama, from the excesses of the Vernon Jones era to the spectacle of Burrell Ellis on trial, this election tests The DeKalb Way – whether the power of incumbency really matters more than the quality of governance, whether negative public image ever really translates into motivated opposition and actual votes.

Tomorrow: Why this time it’s different.

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Davo65
Davo65

Another insightful article…Thanks, George.

I’m a bit curious on your opinion that things are different ‘south of Ponce’. More like ‘south of Memorial’, don’t ya think. I’ve lived south of PDL for 20 yrs now. Within the past 8 the level of gentrification south to Hosea and beyond is quite extraordinary. I have to think that all the influx of DINKs is going to shake up south DeKalb politics as much as anything else. There are no affordable houses left north of PDL. If you want a nice house with a yard ITP than it’s around Memorial.

TRAVELINFOOL
TRAVELINFOOL

It would be interesting to see the demographic change of Commissioner District 3. Many areas have changed significantly, especially those near and adjacent to, but not in, City of Decatur. Also, I believe his District includes those areas in DeKalb near the Atlanta/East Atlanta line. I wonder how that will affect Larry Johnson’s re-election and has anyone seriously looked at those demos to see if there is a chance to run against him.

CoastalCat
CoastalCat

I don’t care. I don’t care. I moved away from there…lalala. Good luck draining that cesspool. Too many crooks covering for the other crooks covering for the…

bethebalance
bethebalance

race has been interjected into so many arguments not just on the Commission, but in the School Board (more before the Replacements were appointed, I believe). my sense is that while many of these arguments find fertile ground for a historical or present reason, the reason they succeed electorally is because those grounds are far easier to identify with than the more complex reality. Am i right to recall that African-Americans have had leadership in DeKalb for only about 25 years now? So, two to three generations of incumbents maybe? Perhaps we are at a historical turning point.

Will Durant
Will Durant

Far, far too much is made of the melanin content of skin. By everyone.

LTWill
LTWill

Great Article and I agree 100%. I grew up in South DeKalb but went to school on the north side of the county (the M-to-M & Magnet Programs). There was always a sense that Ponce/US78 was a dividing line between the county. I remember teachers and parents complaining (fairly or not) that Northern DeKalb schools got more attention and resources. Politicians have definitely used racial resentment/fear as cover to hide their corruption. Hopefully the changing east side gentrification and South DeKalb city incorporations will help fix these issues.