by Owen Griffis Clow
In my previous essay, I offered a brief local history of Chamblee, Georgia, and highlighted two events of the 1990s: a 1992 Chamblee City Council meeting and the city’s subsequent adoption (and the ultimate failure) of a “revitalization” project known as the International Village. These events, I argued, reflected the city’s turn to probusiness interests to counter negative press attention resulting from the city’s own racist reaction to its new immigrant population—a story that hardly accords with the one told by the area’s tourist boosters, who tend to represent the historical development of the Buford Highway Corridor as a story of harmonious cooperation and judicious support from local authorities. 1See, e.g., Eric Clarkson, “My City’s 20-Year ‘Overnight Success Story’ Offers Lessons to Others,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 8, 2019, 28A. Clarkson is Chamblee’s current mayor. But the story of Chamblee and its “international” rebranding also points up the limits of the racial imaginary in America at the turn of the twenty-first century. This essay uses some of the events in Chamblee’s recent past as a case study to explore how the constraints of the neoliberal racial imaginary have colored the city’s recent history and to posit a relationship between racial capitalism and the historical construction of this imaginary. Ultimately, the recent history of Chamblee suggests a shift in how local authorities understood race: Chamblee’s outward embrace of its multiethnic immigrant population is not simply the transition from racism to the absence of racism; rather, it is the transition from traditional white supremacy to a neoliberal racial imaginary.
Let me pause for a moment to explain what I mean by “the neoliberal racial imaginary.”2My description of the neoliberal racial imaginary draws from Kyle W. Kusz, “Much Adu about Nothing? Freddy Adu and Neoliberal Racism in New Millenium America,” in Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African-Americans in Contemporary Sports, eds. David J. Leonard and C. Richard King, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 150. Kusz, following Henry Giroux, identifies “the main ideological elements of neoliberal racism” as “self-reliance, hyperindividualism, competition, hard work, racial meritocracy, and racial color blindness,” and argues that it is through the “logics of the neoliberal racial imaginary” that these elements are transformed into a “public common sense” of race. I know this term sounds like academic nonsense. Instinctively, I’m inclined to agree with this assessment. But I also want to suggest that we are all intimately familiar with the neoliberal racial imaginary itself, even if the term seems like self-aggrandizing academic jargon, and that the term is useful as it explains a phenomenon which continues to describe social relations in America. Let us break “the neoliberal racial imaginary” down into its component parts. By “neoliberal,” I refer to an ideological turn in the latter half of the twentieth century which insisted that enjoyment of the rights and privileges of liberal democratic society were (or ought to be) predicated on meritocracy, competition, individual achievement, and the philosophy of “colorblindness.” Neoliberalism is neither the product nor province of any one party; it is a philosophy of politics that is attached umbilically to capitalism, and one which finds purchase through the political enshrinement of unequal market relations, deregulation, and rampant privatization. And by “racial imaginary” I simply mean the way that Americans, under neoliberalism, imagine the real-life manifestations of American racial ideology.3For more on the ideological formation of race in America, see Barbara J. Fields, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review 181.1 (1990), 95-118. How does “race” circumscribe our social relations? How do we evaluate “racial diversity” in a community? What does “racial harmony” mean? Is it possible? How might we imagine it?
The neoliberal racial imaginary underlies the common-sense logic of contemporary American racial capitalism. In his discipline-defining book Black Marxism, Black Studies theorist Cedric Robinson claimed that
the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, [and] so too did social ideology. As a material force, then, it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism.
The term “racial capitalism,” he explains, refers to this development and allows it to function as “a historical agency.”4Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition,(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), 2. As an analytic tool, racial capitalism suggests that the development of a particular ideology of race in America was intimately connected to the development of America’s dominant mode of economic self-conception. While Robinson’s original articulation reframes how we think of the historical development of these two concepts, legal scholar Nancy Leong posits a process-oriented definition: “the process of deriving social and economic value from racial identity.”5Nancy Leong, “Racial Capitalism,” Harvard Law Review 126.8 (2013), 2152. I am particularly interested in Leong’s description because it focuses on value: racial capitalism is an extractive process, reliant upon, in historian Walter Johnson’s words, “the elaboration, reproduction, and exploitation of notions of racial difference.”6Walter Johnson, “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice,” Boston Review, February 20, 2018. Thus, the neoliberal racial imaginary, in my conception, is the product of this extractive process; it is the utopian vision of the world produced by the logic of racial capitalism.
You’ve made it through the abstract discussion of theory—dense, I admit, but necessary. But how does this relate to Chamblee?
One might imagine a small, majority-white town in the American South responding to an influx of nonwhite immigration with well-worn fears of economic replacement or the foreclosure of potential job opportunities. But what was most striking about the comments at the Chamblee City Council meeting was not the overt racism, nor the xenophobia: it was the fact that the public anxiety about nonwhite immigrants were not typically rooted in the typical economic concerns of “job theft,” et cetera. The bulk of the issues expressed by the petitioners revolved around either the politics of visibility or the protection of access to their own property—issues which are economic in nature, but were not, in this instance, stated explicitly as such.7By “politics of visibility” I refer to disagreements over the right of people to be seen in public, a right which may be curtailed when people in a position of power express aesthetic displeasure (fear, disgust, anxiety) with the appearance of a dissimilar “other.” Immigration historian Art Hansen records that “residents complained that Hispanic men frequently were rowdy, drank, and used drugs while waiting for work near a convenience store. An elderly white woman who lived behind [a Majik Market parking lot where day laborers often congregated complained that men used her yard as a bathroom.”8City of Chamblee Council Meetings, Agendas and Minutes 1990-1993, 706, item 5, Chamblee City Hall, Chamblee, GA. Quoted in Art Hansen, “International Immigration and Change in Metropolitan Atlanta,” in Beyond the Gateway: Immigrants in a Changing America, eds. Elzbieta M. Gozdziak and Susan F. Martin, (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005), 103. “They’re just terrible filthy people,” said another petitioner. “I don’t want them in Chamblee.” The mayor, Johnson Brown, agreed, assuring the crowd that his city was “not going to have these people coming in here going to the bathroom wherever they please.”9Shelley Emling, “Hispanic Leaders, Chamblee Officials Seeking Dialogue, The Atlanta Constitution, September 1, 1992, C1. Quoted in Walter J. Nicholls, The Immigrant Rights Movement: The Battle over National Citizenship, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019), n.p. (eBook).
The increased visibility of nonwhite residents and racist accusations of their uncleanliness threatened the theretofore-white racial imaginary of Chamblee—a shared implicit belief among white residents that the city was effectively white space and ought to be policed accordingly. The national reaction against the overt racism of the City Council reflected the death of a racial imaginary now outdated in the ostensibly “post-racial” society of the 1990s. After all, would Mayor Brown and Councilman King have been compelled to deny their racism—a matter of public record—in a public forum were such views no longer palatable to the general American public?10Johnson W. Brown, “People of Chamblee were Victimized by Biased, Inaccurate Press Reports,” The Atlanta Journal, September 1, 1992, A19; Gary King, “Inflammatory Quotes Taken Out of Context in Chamblee,” The Atlanta Constitution, August 31, 1992, A8. It also suggested the need for local government and residents to recalibrate that racial imaginary to a form more palatable to an American public increasingly aspiring towards a dream state of full racial colorblindness. With the help of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Chamblee chose this option.
The problem of the International Village project is instructive to the overall contours of the neoliberal racial imaginary which came to supplant the preexisting model of overt white supremacy. Chamblee officials were swayed by the economic argument set forth by the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, but recognized that support for the plan would require more than just political action to make the project viable. This entailed an effective “rebrand” of the city: Chamblee had to publicly shed its “good ol’ boy” politics—the public side of the old racial imaginary—and publicly embrace the new “face” of the city. Any self-conscious rebranding of a place necessarily involves the erasure or concealment of elements of the past—of historical memory—which no longer serve a useful role in the active construction of a place’s identity. This was the rhetorical strategy behind Atlanta’s “city too busy to hate” moniker in the 1960s—a label which intentionally obscured a long history of racial violence in the Atlanta area.11For a discussion of the limits of this slogan, see Virginia H. Hein, “The Image of ‘A City Too Busy to Hate’: Atlanta in the 1960s,” Phylon 33.3 (1972), 205-221. Chamblee’s superficial embrace of its immigrant communities followed this public-relations approach, and it is telling that the city’s advertising literature highlights the commercial productivity of the Buford Highway Corridor, pointing up the novel cultural mixture of the community only insofar as these immigrant cultures have produced entrepreneurs who make a lot of money.12Ballon, “The Melted Pot.” And, in practice, Chamblee’s support for its immigrant communities was largely limited to boosterism: many sections of Buford Highway have no sidewalks, and the street is by far the most dangerous major road in the Atlanta area in terms of number of pedestrian deaths.13Angie Schmitt, “The Campaign to Fix Atlanta’s Most Dangerous Street and Preserve its Immigrant Cultures,” StreetsBlog USA, September 21, 2017. In effect, this was a recalibration of Chamblee’s racial imaginary: from explicit white supremacy to a neoliberal model of colorblind multiculturalism in which nonwhite groups may gain true admission to the community through a kind of quasi-meritocratic display of commercial productivity.
I highlight the events in Chamblee at the end of the twentieth century—the city council meeting, the International Village project—as a means of demonstrating a shift in the racial imaginary of a city in the midst of rapid, dramatic demographic and economic changes. From 1992 to 1996, the City of Chamblee replaced one racial imaginary—the imaginary of overt white supremacy, of “good old boy” Southern racism and white aesthetic domination—with another: the ostensibly multiracial, colorblind, economically-prosperous neoliberal racial imaginary. This transition, of course, did not end racism, either in Chamblee or elsewhere. Substantively, it did little to ameliorate it. This is not to make the argument that the Buford Highway Corridor is devoid of value: it remains a vital immigrant foodway, and its status as a starting point for culinary tourism is certainly merited. Today Chamblee and Doraville are widely recognized as diverse immigrant meccas in the greater Southeast, but just under a quarter of residents in each city live below the census poverty line.14This statistic is produced from data from the 2010 U.S. Census. To arrive at this number, I combined the total populations of both Chamblee and Doraville, per the census, and combined the total sub-poverty-line population of each city, and calculated a percentage (23.7%). The rate is higher in Chamblee (25%) than in Doraville (18%). As I previously indicated, the U.S. Census’s ability to accurately reflect undocumented populations is imperfect at best. One effect of the excavation of this local history is to point up a history which has largely been whitewashed by probusiness interests. But, in a deeper sense, this exploration suggests that it didn’t have to work this way: the boundaries imposed by the racial capitalism, mediated through the neoliberal racial imaginary, foreclosed the potential for a socially-conscious, antiracist approach to community-building.
Brown, Johnson. “People of Chamblee Were Victimized by Biased, Inaccurate Press Reports.” Atlanta Journal, September 1, 1992, sec. A19.
Clarkson, Eric. “My City’s 20-Year ‘Overnight Success Story’ Offers Lessons to Others.” Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 8, 2019, sec. 28A.
Emling, Shelley. “Hispanic Leaders, Chamblee Officials Seeking Dialogue.” Atlanta Constitution, September 1, 1992, sec. C1.
Fields, Barbara. “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America.” New Left Review 181, no. 1 (1990): 95–118.
Hansen, Art. “International Immigration and Change in Metropolitan Atlanta.” In Beyond the Gateway: Immigrants in a Changing America. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005.
Hein, Virginia. “The Image of ‘A City Too Busy To Hate’: Atlanta in the 1960s.” Phylon 33, no. 3 (1972): 205–21.
Johnson, Walter. “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice.” Boston Review, February 20, 2018.
King, Gary. “Inflammatory Quotes Taken Out of Context in Chamblee.” Atlanta Constitution, August 31, 1992, sec. A8.
Kusz, Kyle. “Much Adu about Nothing? Freddy Adu and Neoliberal Racism in New Millenium America.” In Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African-Americans in Contemporary Sports. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.
Leong, Nancy. “Racial Capitalism.” Harvard Law Review 126, no. 8 (2013): 2151–2226.
Nicholls, Walter. The Immigrant Rights Movement: The Battle over National Citizenship. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.
Robinson, Cedric. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.
Schmitt, Angie. “The Campaign to Fix Atlanta’s Most Dangerous Street and Preserve Its Immigrant Cultures.” StreetsBlog USA, September 21, 2017.