Why I fear for my sons (From CNN Opinion)

By Kimberly Norwood

KNorwoodEditor’s note: Kimberly Norwood is a law professor at the Washington University School of Law and editor and co-contributor of “Color Matters: Skin Tone Bias and the Myth of a Post Racial America.” The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) — I am a 54-year-old black woman — a mother, lawyer and law professor. I teach at the Washington University in St. Louis Law School and live 12 miles away from Ferguson, Missouri.

The median household income in my suburb is $85,000 per year. In Ferguson, it is $36,000. In my suburb, 3.5% of the people are black. In Ferguson, almost 70% are black. These are stark contrasts. Yet I share things in common with black people in Ferguson and, indeed, throughout the United States.

When I shop, I’m often either ignored as a waste of time or scrutinized as a potential shoplifter. In June, my daughter and I walked into the china and crystal department at a Macy’s department store. I was about to speak to the salesperson directly in front of me. She walked right past me to welcome the white woman behind us.

My daughter looked at me and said: “Really? Did she just ignore us?” My daughter is a young teenager at the crossroads of “skin color doesn’t matter” and “oh yes, it does.” She is in transition. I felt hurt, anger and embarrassment.

But this kind of encounter happens routinely.

Driving, I tend to have a bit of a lead foot — hitting 45 in a 35 mph zone. The few times I have been stopped in my suburb, the first question I’m asked is whether I live “around here.” Not one of my white friends has been asked that question when they were pulled over by a police officer.

Last summer, my teenage daughter was shopping with four white friends at a mall in an affluent St. Louis suburb. As they left the store, two mall security guards approached my daughter. They told her the store had called them and reported her as a shoplifter, and asked her to come with them. After a search, they found she had nothing. So far in her young life, mall security guards have stopped her on suspicion of shoplifting three times. Each time she was innocent.

I also have three sons. My two oldest are 22. They are 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4 and each weighs more than 220 pounds. One recently graduated from college; the other will graduate in 2015. The youngest is 13. All three like to wear jeans and the latest sneakers. They love hoodies. They like looking cool. These three young men have never been arrested or even been in a fight at school.

Every time my sons leave the house, I worry about their safety. One of my sons loves to go out at night to clubs. I worry about potential unrest at the clubs — yes, black-on-black crime is a problem, and despite what many people think, black people complain about it all the time in their communities and churches and in newspapers and on radio stations.

I also worry about his drive home and his being stopped by police.

The data in Ferguson are an example of the larger picture in the St. Louis County area. Police stop, search and arrest black people at a disproportionate rate, even though they are less likely to possess contraband than white people.

This son of mine who likes to go out at night is big and tall and he has brown skin. He graduated from college in May but cannot find employment. He is an intelligent, clean-cut young man.

But the negative stereotypes automatically assigned to his skin color follow him everywhere, even in job interviews, like extra weight. It reminds me of the airline employee who asks before you can check your suitcase: Did a stranger ask you to carry something or pack your bag? In my son’s case, the answer is yes. He is carrying extra weight, unfairly, and without his knowledge or consent, packed in his luggage.

A few years ago my husband and I went on a cruise. My older boys were teenagers at the time and were taking summer enrichment classes at a school about a mile from our home. They planned to walk to school in the morning. At the top of a long list of things to do before we left for our trip was “e-mail chief of police.”

I explained to the chief that my husband and I were going on a cruise, I was a member of the community and that my two sons would be walking to school. I attached pictures of the boys, explaining that only a couple of black families lived in the neighborhood. My sons did not normally walk in the neighborhood, so they would draw attention.

I offered to bring my sons to the police department so officers could meet them. The police chief and I met and all went well.

But I’ve asked myself: How many parents of white sons have thought to add to their to-do-before-leaving-town list, “Write letter to local police department, introducing sons and attaching photos, so police do not become suspicious and harass them”?

Even though my older boys are men, I still worry about them. I worry about my 13-year-old. This worry is a stressful, and sadly normal, part of my daily existence. My youngest will be 6 feet tall in the coming weeks. He has brown skin.

These young black men have arrows pointed and ready to shoot at them daily — black-on-black crime, police encounters, societal bias and mistrust. Shortly after the Michael Brown shooting, I met with a group of my 13-year-old’s black male friends to explain to them what happened in Ferguson, and what to do and how to respond if they are ever stopped by the police. My words reminded me of stories and fears my grandfather used to share with me about his encounters with police during the Jim Crow era.

These are just a few of the many ways in which people in America are treated differently based on the color of their skin. This has been going on for a long time. I hope the events in Ferguson will encourage people to see the stark differences in the experiences of black people — not just black people who struggle economically but also black people like me — and white people as they go about their routine, daily lives.



Going Darkly Into That Good Night

By Charles Cullen

Anyone who knows me knows I’m hopelessly addicted to work of the Coen brothers. My addiction goes beyond nodding when someone mentions that “the Dude BWB34abides.” I can quote nearly the entire movie. I believe “No Country For Old Men” is a piece of art that could never be replicated, and I’m shocked by how closely the Republican Party now comes to resembling Homer Stokes (the KKK, “is you is or is you ain’t my constituency?” political candidate of O Brother, Where Art Thou?) “Is you is or is you ain’t my constituency,” Homer pleads with a booing crowd.

“Is you is or is you ain’t my constituency?” Speaking for myself, Homer, I ain’t. I’m not accusing the GOP of being entirely made up of bigots. Though they mostly are exactly as racist as old Homer, they’re much better (with some spectacular exceptions) at hiding it.

The fact that an entire party can be represented by a single slow-witted racist is what makes the following question so fascinating; what happens when the Republican party can no longer rely on racist and/or stupid Caucasians to mindlessly back them? In many areas the white majority is quickly disappearing, and the old trick of just saying something hateful and getting white voters to vote against their own interests is growing more and more difficult.

The GOP has long been able to count on a certain portion the Latino population to help them over the hump, but they’ve been so hateful toward Latinos that that population is rapidly disappearing. Without these voters the highest office Republicans can realistically hope for is the House, with a few Senate seats scattered from still extremely white districts.

And that’s what makes things so interesting: the GOP can still count on the very deep South, but one can’t win a presidency without contesting swing states. Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota, and North Carolina, will become reliably Democratic as long as GOP Republicans have to out-crazy Tea Party challengers to win primaries.

Hateful and lunatic comments have a way of following one into general elections. And this becomes more and more true the higher the office one is aiming for.

The American people seem to like to switch presidential parties after roughly two terms, but the Republicans simply aren’t offering them anyone to vote for. From disastrous Republican SOTU speaker (rebuttal) Bobby Jindal, to Donald Trump, to “Awww Shucky-Ducky” Herman Cain, the Republican brand has never looked so weak. Marco Rubio would probably be an attractive option, were the footage of him guzzling gallons of water nearly as viral as the Star Wars kid.

It’s a bad time for weakness, too, as the United States becomes more and more diverse. What must the GOP do to win a Presidency once White voters no longer hold so much sway in swing states?

Perhaps Ol’ Homer could’ve offered some advice but, alas, he was ridden out on a rail (and fictional).

Rand Paul is probably the Republican’s last, best hope–Bush III has shown little interest in running–so one must ask, after a Paul Presidency (if it happens) where do the Republicans turn?

In sum, the Republicans look like FOP. And we as a people don’t want FOP, goddammit, were Dapper Dan voters.

St. Louisans Know the Ferguson You Just Met


From Beverly Isom

This week the country converged on Ferguson, Missouri. I am visiting my hometown of St. Louis and I am very familiar with Ferguson which is a mere four miles from my mother’s home and the burned down Quick Trip is literally across the street from my brother’s house. For many people from St. Louis, there has long been a quite acceptance of the racial disparity and unsettling tension between residents and law enforcement in Ferguson and surrounding counties like Jennings and Florissant and even across the Mississippi River in Illinois. My brothers like other men of color are accustomed to unwarranted and frequent police stops that typically included reluctant conversations with police officers about where they were driving to and from.

The death of teenager Michael Brown simply highlighted for the nation a racial divide that is all too familiar. I was at the protest site and about five blocks along West Florissant have been transformed to a Beirut-like war zone. Hordes of protestors in gas masks, bouncing signs that proclaim “no justice, no peace”, curious onlookers, media satellite trucks, journalists, smart phones, video cameras, and of course police and more police with guns and gear in the ready position. But most interesting to me is the ever-changing national narrative and the media coverage.

It is difficult to miss the every-second up-to-the-minute breaking news that has taken place over the past 10 days. Race has a rich and storied history in St. Louis and St. Louis County. The history of race in St. Louis is complicated however you need look no further than a few miles away from the protest to Calvary cemetery where Dred Scott is buried to know how deep-rooted it has been. Dred Scott was a slave who had lived with his owner in a free state before coming back to the slave state of Missouri. But Scott argued that because he had lived in free states that he should be free. The Supreme Court disagreed and it resulted in an 1857 landmark decision that stated African Americans were not citizens of the United States and therefore had no rights to sue in federal courts. As a young student in the St. Louis School System the Dred Scott case was required reading.

Some national media commentaries have eluded to the notion that the Civil Rights Movement bypassed St. Louis. For many St. Louisans we might argue that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t miss St. Louis but the racial justice movement has definitely struggled to call St. Louis home. St. Louis is a story of two unequal societies that have coexisted since the 1800’s. For the first three days of this protest in Ferguson, neither politicians nor police recognized the imagery of militarization in national news stories and social media posts that shocked people everywhere……………except here. The police protocols failed, they employed strategies of power and force because community policing is not exercised in communities like Ferguson. The persistent presence of police, armored trucks and M-16s are not likely to quell the systemic tension in Ferguson that has been swelling for years. It has been ineffective to date.

I will return to Atlanta soon but this is a trip I will not soon forget and I will stay glued to the 24-hour up-to-the-minute news coverage until there is resolution. In between the political maneuvering and the legal posturing disguised as news coverage, I pray for peace in Ferguson and for the family of Michael Brown.

Will Georgia Voters Rebuff Republicans this November?

Twit-FacebookThe national media continues to probe Georgia politicians about the political campaign landscape in the statewide races, especially the Michele Nunn and Jason Carter races. There are discussions about the other statewide races but the national attention is focused on the Senate and gubernatorial races. The primary question to me is whether Georgia voters as diverse as they are—will rebuff the politics of Georgia’s Republican leadership? Or will the demographics shifts in Georgia make a big enough difference to ignite high voter turnout to sweep Nunn, Carter and others into statewide elected positions? In case you are wondering what some of the issues are take a look at Jason Carter’s recent release.

Rankings That Matter: Deal’s Record for the Middle Class

As Gov. Deal continues to trumpet a ranking from CNBC, let’s remember the rankings that show how the middle class is really doing under the governor:

  • A study released this week said that Georgia’s schools rank 32nd overall. The study shows that Georgia has the 4th highest dropout rate and the least safe schools in the country. (WalletHub, accessed 8/6/14)
  • Georgia has the 5th highest unemployment rate in the country (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed 8/6/14).
  • Georgia is one of only two states in which real per capita GDP has declined in the last 15 years (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6/20/14). Adjusted for inflation, the average Georgia family in effect makes $6,000 less than the average family did 10 years ago (Politifact, 1/23/14).
  • The same CNBC ranking that Gov. Deal is trumpeting found Georgia to be among the worst states for “quality of life” and “education,” ranking 32nd in both categories. (CNBC, 6/24/14)

Some other statewide issues like healthcare, transportation and water can be added to the Carter list. Many Georgians live with only emergency healthcare services because Governor Deal refuses to acknowledge the benefits of expanded Medicaid. Healthcare is a critical quality of life issue for Georgians. Without viable transportation solutions, the negative impact of snarled traffic in metro Atlanta will continue.

Our water challenges continue while Georgia enjoys a AAA bond rating in part because state funding of infrastructure isn’t a high enough priority for Governor Deal.

Deal does not advocate for the financing Georgia’s desperate need to expand, renovate and build reliable transportation networks of safe bridges, efficient roads, connected transit, trails and paths and statewide water supply, storm water and sewer systems. In fact, from our experience last winter there is evidence emergency service system and planning needs investment as well.

The data clearly illustrates the problems in Georgia; the only question now is will Georgia voters rebuff the Republican leadership this November.

Voter turnout in a midterm election is usually less than presidential elections. Progressive candidates are counting on a larger than usual turnout to sweep them into office. Georgia’s ineffective leadership and voters desire to change that leadership may be the perfect equation to make this year’s midterm election the exception to the rule.

Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts Highlights East Lake Transformation

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts’ highlights Tom Cousins in a recent column as one of the “good guys” for his use of his wealth and influence to make the world a better place. Pitts highlights Tom’s contributions to improving the East Lake East Lakecommunity. This neighborhood that housed the old East Lake public housing project where 90% of residents were victims of a felony every year, where few children achieved state standards in any subject, where the crime rate was 18 times higher than the national average, where adult employment was under 25% and where partnerships with strong local nonprofit organizations were virtually unknown. Tom along with East Lake leader Eva Davis and Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renee Glover formed the leadership team that turned East Lake around. Today the Villages of East Lake, the East Lake YMCA, the East Lake Sheltering Arms and the Charles Drew School are forging new partnerships and setting a high bar for community engagement, student achievement and community wellness. The East Lake neighborhood model is used by civic leaders in neighborhoods in Birmingham, Charlotte, Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Omaha, Rome and Spartanburg. Pitts column is a great read and a powerful reminder of what happens when partnerships work.



Defending the Indefensible

Georgia’s Attorney General Sam Olens as Don Quixote– jousting at legal windmills!

By: Gary S. Cox

OlensGeorgia’s “defense” of its voter approved constitutional ban against same-sex marriage, filed in response to Lamda Legal Defense Fund’s challenge in April 2014, is an indefensible position by any measure. The state’s arguments note, “Plaintiffs may well be right that our nation is headed for a new national equilibrium on same-sex marriage. Indeed, in the last several years, at least eleven states have decided to expand their definition of marriage to include same-sex couples through the democratic process … And it seems as though each month new opinion polls are released showing increased public support for such changes in additional states. But judicially imposing such a result now would merely wrest a potentially unifying popular victory from the hands of supporters and replace it instead with the stale conformity of compulsion. This Court should reject Plaintiffs’ invitation to disregard controlling precedent, decline to anticipate a future ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, and dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety.”

Even after acknowledging the sea-change in public opinion on same-sex marriage in their brief, Georgia steadfastly has decided to stand “in defense of marriage,” (one man plus one woman), based on the assertion that the challengers are asking the court to find ” … the people of Georgia no longer have the right to decide for themselves whether to define marriage in the way every state in our Union has defined it as recently as 2003.” However, the state failed to mention in their refutation that nation-wide there are 77 cases challenging state marriage laws similar to Georgia’s. Thus far, there have been 28 wins and zero losses for the pro same-sex marriage challengers. A stunning record of victory! Even North Carolina recently dropped its defense of its constitutional ban but not Georgia!

Though Georgia is in the 11th Circuit Court, the State Attorney General, Sam Olens, has decided to play Don Quixote and joust at legal wind mills wasting taxpayer dollars all in the name of election year politics (Olens is up for re-election and does have a qualified Democratic opponent in Attorney Greg Hecht.) He knows that the tide of legal cases is against him. He knows that marriage is nothing more than a legal contract that allows two individuals to receive Federal, state and local benefits that single people cannot receive. The marriage contract grants inheritance rights, visitation rights, tax filing rights, federal spousal benefits, state spousal benefits – and the list goes on to more than 128 “benefits” at all levels of government. There isn’t anything sacrosanct or magical about a marriage license. It is a mutually signed and witnessed document filed in the county of one’s residence. A license bestows mutual privileges and allows for joint participation in legal arrangements – it holds the spouses communally and legally answerable to each other regardless of gender.

The state of Georgia has failed to note how current law equally protects all its citizens. The state offers no rational argument for allowing marriage laws that discriminate against LGBT citizens. The “marriage is for procreation” claim, offered in most of the 28 cases won thus far, was not seen as a rational reason. The same applies to the “marriage protects children” contention. Protects children from what or whom? Two loving and caring individuals who want to be legally recognized by the state – like Christopher Innis and Shelton Stroman who have a nine year old son? How does discrimination against plaintiffs Rashawn Chandler and Dyana Bagby, who are Atlanta Police Officers, benefit society? Without the right to marry, God forbid if something happens to either police officer in the line of duty. While the city of Atlanta has Domestic Partnership legislation, it is simply not strong enough to protect the legal rights for two women who put their lives on the line for us on a daily basis. They need and deserve the right to marry and all the legal protections offered under this social contract.

We noted in the December 2013 edition of Blogging While Blue, “The last fourteen words of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment were the key to striking down the Utah same-sex marriage ban and will be the key to challenging to Georgia’s constitutional same-sex marriage ban. It a matter of ‘just a matter of finding the right couple(s), just the right circumstances, just the right case(s) and we will most likely have legalized same-sex marriages in Georgia . . . it is just a matter time before that Trojan horse is left on the Federal Courthouse steps in Atlanta.” It seems Lambda Legal Defense Fund has found the right Georgia couples and the Trojan Horse seems to be on fire! An indefensible defense will not put out this fire.



The University of Texas-Austin Victory is a Win for Diversity



Whether the 2-to-1 ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans decision to allow the University of Texas-Austin to use race in college admissions to achieve diversity will have an impact on other higher education institutions is not known. Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote. “It is equally settled that universities may use race as part of a holistic admissions program where it cannot otherwise achieve diversity.”

The decision is the result of a lawsuit filed by Abigail Fisher, a white Texan who sued the university after she was denied admission in 2008. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court said the federal appeals court should take another look at case. After the Supreme Court ruling, there was speculation that use of race in admissions policy at the University of Texas might be stuck down. Instead the Appeal Court upheld the decision. The University of Texas “10 percent” admissions rule states that Texas students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes can earn automatic admission. For the other 90 percent there is a combination of factors in the evaluation process and race can be one of them.

University President Bill Powers said in a statement, “We remain committed to assembling a student body at the University of Texas at Austin that brings with it the educational benefits of diversity while respecting the rights of all students. This ruling ensures that our campus, our state and the entire nation will benefit from the exchange of ideas and thoughts that happens when students who are diverse in all regards come together in the classroom, at campus events and in all aspects of campus life.”

This decision might provide a moment of comfort for colleges and universities that use race as one factor or criteria for admission but the moral obligation to admit diverse students in academic institutions will not likely be won, if it has to battled in court from state-to-state.

Let’s Stand With Jada

A recent national survey from more than 300 colleges and universities reflect serious problems in responses to student reports of sexual violence. It also indicates that colleges and universities across the nation are violating federal law by failing to investigate sexual assaults on campus.

Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) plans to use the findings for legislation that she is writing with bipartisan support that includes Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). The bill is scheduled to be released this fall when students return to campuses. Schools are required by law to investigate when they ARE  made aware of a sex crime on campus. But more than 21% of “the nation’s largest private institutions” surveyed conducted fewer investigations than they reported to the Department of Education.

It is good that sexual assaults and the reporting of those assaults is now being addressed by higher education and by government. It is critical that the safety and protection of girls be taken seriously no matter what academic stage they are in. Which brings us to the rape of 16-year oljadad girl last week in Houston. Jada is the teenager who attended a house party with a friend who knew the host her rape was recorded and shared on social media. Once the video started to circulate online and her friends began to call her, Jada knew something horrible had happened. The video went viral but that did not shame or stop Jada from telling her story to a local Houston television station. “There’s no point in hiding,” she said. “Everybody has already seen my face and my body, but that’s not what I am and who I am.” Jada was allegedly drugged and passed around by several men who raped her.

One of Jada’s perpetrators mocked her on social media by calling her a snitch and other derogatory phrases, which has encouraged cyber bullying. A disgusting social media trend has users posting photos of themselves bottomless and passed out mocking Jada. Recent reports from the ongoing investigation indicate that there may be other young girls who may have been victims. The police are asking for the publics’ help by asking young girls to call into the station if they see themselves in any videos online.

Jada’s case has gotten some very high profile help from actresses Mia Farrow and Jada Pinkett Smith. Jada Pinkett Smith recently posted on social media,”This could be you, me, or any woman or girl that we know. What do we plan to do about this ugly epidemic? #justiceforjada” Jada Pinkett Smith has also been a vocal public advocate for victims of human trafficking.

There are 237,868 reported rapes every year in America, every two minutes there is a sexual assault, 40% of the victims are under 18 and two-thirds of the attacks are by someone the victim knows. Here is how we can help Jada and every other victim of sexual violence. Acknowledge the facts. Pay attention to the reports of rape. Insist community leaders use the power of their influence to encourage training for schools and colleges and make the process for reporting and investigating sexual assault less traumatizing for the victims. Push police chiefs and law enforcement officials take immediate action to investigate and prosecute those who attack and violate girls and women. But most of all don’t be silent about assault.

Let’s stand with Jada and other sexual assault victims by pushing for fair investigations and laws that protects victim so that perpetrators will be justly prosecuted.

Will the Georgia State Legislature revisit religious freedom bills? Hobby Lobby ruling just may have opened a new door …

By Gary S. Cox

“Hobby Lobby stones gay employee to death,” read the recent headline on The Daily Currant, a self-described “global satirical newspaper.” Now that we virtueonlinehave your attention, of course, the headline isn’t true though it zinged around the web on social media as if it were a true story. Nonetheless, the point of the satire was that recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., best characterizes the “slippery slope” we are now on when it comes to practicing one’s faith in the workplace under the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The satire was emphasizing the fact that a “corporation” has the right to practice religious freedom. If this argument is taken to the extreme, then, could the company invoke Leviticus 20:13 which states, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood is on their own heads.” By claiming to be a Christian corporation that abides by Christian principles, how far can a privately held corporation take their religious beliefs? Could they refuse to hire or give service to gay people? Where is the bottom of the slope? No one really knows yet.

With the Federal government losing the Hobby Lobby challenge to mandated birth control coverage, Georgia’s extreme right political pundits are hailing the victory as an opportunity to have the General Assembly pass the previously failed Preservation of Religious Freedom Act. The prevailing argument is the ruling gives “political cover” to Senator Josh McKoon (R-Columbus, and State Representative Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) to re-introduce the legislation in 2015. Senator McKoon, in light of the ruling, is actively and openly courting support for his legislation. In a recent right-leaning editorial column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McKoon was quoted as saying, “The protection of people of faith, it’s a foundational reason that America exists … Yes, religious freedom is a priority in Georgia.” What does he mean by these comments? In reading Senate Bill 377 we know his priorities, according to the Credo-Mobilize website, “ … would authorize any business to refuse services and goods based on religious convictions. This would open a Pandora’s box of possible discrimination and anti-civil behavior targeting gays and lesbians, women, racial minorities and certain religious groups.” Senator McKoon’s editorial comments make it sound like re-introduction of his failed Senate Bill 377 is a foregone conclusion. Would it fail again post Hobby Lobby? The level of uncertainty is too great that we must call attention to the issue now, before the legislative session starts in 2015!

As a reminder, the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) does not apply to state laws. This was determined in the City of Boerne vs. Flores – RFRA was struck down in 1997 as it applies to states, but left intact Congress’s authority to make it apply to the Federal government. In reaction to the 1997 ruling, a new tool, such as the McKoon legislative initiative, emerged to impose “religious protections” at the state level. Versions of RFRA have been passed in Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas. Thus-far-to-date, none of these states have legislation as broad as McKoon’s bill which was defeated in 2014 because of the backlash from Georgia’s corporate Fortune 500 giants.

Even though the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to extent protections to the LBGT community in the workplace, Speaker Boehner announced the legislation was “dead on arrival” in the U.S. House of Representatives. Under current law members of the LBGT community may legally be discriminated against in the private sector workplace with no legal avenue available to them to redress of their grievances of possible workplace discrimination. In Georgia at the state level, the LBBT community does not enjoy a status as a “protected class.” The fallout of Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., here in Georgia may very well be the re-introduction and ultimate passage of House Bill 1023 and Senate Bill 377. Those oft cited examples of signs in restaurant windows of “No Gays Allowed” could very well become true in less progressive areas of our great state.

Those of us in the progressive community will need to be ever watchful in the upcoming 2015 legislative session and call upon our friends in the business community and on civic leaders to speak out for equality and justice for all our citizens regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation or sexual orientation.


The Legacy of Fort McPherson in 100 Years

LRAShortly after the start of my 2002 term as mayor, an influential Council member and I wrangled behind closed doors over an issue and we were unable to repair our relationship until years after I left office. The point of contention was whether the city should strongly encourage, almost insist, that a major retail development include a significant number of mixed income apartments and condominiums. Her argument was she didn’t want to lose the investment and the developer’s interest by insisting on the inclusion of mixed income housing.

In losing, I learned an important lesson as a leader. There are times when having the right answer means that public policy married with best practice may be illusive especially when a community has suffered years of disinvestment and disappointment.

Sometimes leaders and those they represent will accept less than the best answer because any answer seems better than the risk of no development at all. Best practice doesn’t always prevail. Fortunately, Atlanta has best practice economic and community development models for reference. Two key points are worth noting.

The transformation of City Hall East into Ponce City Market would not be possible without the public investments in the Old Fourth Ward Park, which in turn is accelerating the transformation of the Old Fourth Ward. The public investment in the Beltline is what is attracting the private investment in the adjacent commercial and residential real estate in neighborhoods around the 22-mile Beltline corridor. Public investments in infrastructure supporting Atlantic Station has generated investments and growth in West Midtown. Key to these success stories is that public investment is “unlocking the value” of properties that would otherwise not attract that type of investment.

Opportunities for public investments that can have transformative impacts on urban neighborhoods are rare. They should not be wasted. We now have general consensus on how these investments – when the opportunities arise – should be shaped and structured. The objective should be to make strategic public investments in infrastructure that will increase the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods and “unlock” the value of developable property in those neighborhoods. By attracting private investment in residential and commercial properties, those neighborhoods can put on a new trajectory.

The original plan for Fort McPherson followed this approach. The master plan as approved by the Board included a public investment in a 150 acre greenspace that would rival Piedmont Park in its size and amenities. The Board anticipated that this investment – combined with transportation and streetscapes – would attract private investment in residential and commercial properties yielding 4,600 units of mixed income housing (20% of it affordable and over 300 units of transition housing for homeless), and 4 million square feet of commercial property that could support nearly 5,000 new jobs.

At the insistence of then Governor Perdue, who some thought wanted to make the mixed use, mixed income, comprehensive revitalization of Fort McPherson part of his legacy, the implementation Authority was established by the Georgia legislature. Neither Governor Perdue nor the legislature ever adopted the policy or dedicated incentives to the development as expected then.  The Great Recession hit Atlanta housing industry hard, I left office in 2010 and Governor Perdue left the following year. ]

If the US Army wants to sell the base so be it, but this has been public land paid for and developed with public dollars for years. The base has been a stabilizing factor for this section of the city for decades and its’ purchase and redevelopment offers a rare opportunity for the surrounding neighborhoods to gain the amenities they have been without for decades.  It also allows the city to leverage the dollars spent on the purchase with the highest and best long term use of the 400 plus acres.

As a product of two mayoral terms before assuming office myself, changing course is not unfamiliar territory even when established best practice is documented. As one who embraced the concept of the Atlanta Beltline, the Atlanta Streetcar, the National Center of Civil and Human Rights, the name change of the airport, who championed the city and community’s $6 billion in water and airport infrastructure and who launched major initiatives to eliminate homelessness and human trafficking, I understand the power of a great new idea that shapes new policy and creates new economic development opportunities. I also understand the importance of balancing public interest with private interest and making sure the public benefit wins every time. As a student of Mayors Jackson and Young I learned underserved communities deserve the best investment of resources and talent and full access to the decision making process.

As a member of the Regional Commission on Homelessness I am equally concerned about the city’s and the Authority’s commitment to the spirit and letter of the Authority plan for addressing homelessness. This plan was negotiated in good faith, reviewed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and vetted in numerous public meetings by the Atlanta City Council. Atlanta remains a city with many people who have so little income they qualify as living in poverty. Thousands are homeless. Some 39% of Atlanta’s children live in families whose income qualifies them as living below the poverty line. Homeless children and their families need our focused attention and renewed commitment to use every available, reasonable and sensible resource to offer them opportunities to improve their economic condition.

Imagine a homeless family that relocates to the new Fort McPherson community who is able to reunite as parents and children in a transformed and planned community with other families of diverse backgrounds within a few Marta stops of the tens of thousands of jobs at Hartsfield Jackson airport and downtown. This community would be few blocks from the colleges and universities of the Atlanta University Center, a few miles from Georgia Tech and Georgia State University, two Marta stations connecting them with jobs, commerce, Emory Midtown Hospital Healthcare, Grady Hospital AND a new private investment from one of America’s most innovative entertainment and businessmen. The new community should be nothing less than inclusive of the aspirations and dreams of the current residents and businesses, those who are most in need and those who have the power and resources to invest tens of millions of dollars into new ventures.

This property represents the most important economic development asset for south Atlanta that the city fathers and mothers will have for a hundred years. Limiting the development options to one or the other seems short sighted knowing what Atlanta has learned about the transformative power of public infrastructure investments