Why Didn't a More Diverse Gwinnett County Vote For MARTA?

The New York Times’s new 1619 Project, reflecting on the 400th anniversary of the bringing of slaves to American soil, includes an article on how two centuries of segregation influenced metropolitan Atlanta’s urban form, leading to, among other things, traffic jams. A large part of the article discusses how racism fueled the two Gwinnett County votes, in 1970 and 1990, to turn down (partially federally funded) MARTA expansion into the county. Which is pretty well established. If you’re not familiar with the history of MARTA being shunned by the white-flight counties, Doug Monroe’s 2012 piece for Atlanta Magazine describes it in more detail, and more passionately. (During our public-transit unit of the class this summer one of my students found that piece for me, unasked, unrewarded by extra credit.)

I will add here that fear of crime also played into both the 1970 and 1990 votes, as violent crime was more prevalent both generally in the United States and in the Atlanta metropolitan area than it is now; it was particularly salient for the 1990 vote, because IIRC there was an extensively-covered stabbing at a MARTA station in the months leading up to the vote. But generally in the United States and in the Atlanta metropolitan area, it is hard to untangle “fear of crime” and “fear of people of color,” and at the time of the 1990 vote Gwinnett residents were going on the record calling Atlanta residents “the wrong people,” so the point stands.

But if white racism -> isolationist settling in far-flung counties -> spurning of public transit, and then the far-flung counties get less white and still reject public transit, what’s going on? That’s the question alluded to but not answered in the last part of the article:

Earlier this year, Gwinnett County voted MARTA down for a third time. Proponents had hoped that changes in the county’s racial composition, which was becoming less white, might make a difference. But the March initiative still failed by an eight-point margin. Officials discovered that some nonwhite suburbanites shared the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites. One white property manager in her late 50s told a reporter that she voted against mass transit because it was used by poorer residents and immigrants, whom she called “illegals.” “Why should we pay for it?” she asked. “Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?”

The quote is an odd veering-off—one would have expected that, following an assertion about nonwhite suburbanites, the reporter would then quote a nonwhite suburbanite. So the reader is left with the overall impression that little has changed and Gwinnett is still full of racists—and I won’t be the foolhardy soul to say there aren’t white racists in Gwinnett, but I think the nonwhite population of the county is being dismissed too easily.

First, a quick recap of how the demographic shift happened:

Data for 2018 is from  Census Population Estimates ; I extracted the 1970 and 1990 data from  the NHGIS data set from IPUMS .

Data for 2018 is from Census Population Estimates; I extracted the 1970 and 1990 data from the NHGIS data set from IPUMS.

Apologies for making that a picture and not a real embedded table; if your screen reader is baffled, the quick summary is that Gwinnett went from 95% white and 5% black in 1970, to roughly the same in 1990, to 62% white and 25% black by 2018.

(Obviously when we say “people of color” or “nonwhite” we generally include people of Hispanic/Latino/Latinx descent, but that’s not how the Census works; it treats race and ethnicity as two separate categories. The 2017 American Community Survey, which is a slightly different data set than the one I used above, has a total population for Gwinnett of 889,954, of whom 184,621, or 20.7%, identified as Hispanic or Latino. Of that population, 3.6% selected “black or African-American” as their race, so we can safely say that the black and Hispanic/Latino/Latinx populations of Gwinnett don’t overlap very much.)

So what happened? First of all, turnout was relatively low: approximately 90,000 votes were cast, which meant 89% of Gwinnettians didn’t participate. Second, the Times isn’t quite right in implying that suburbanites of color generally voted against the measure. If you look at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s map of the vote, you can see pretty clearly that the “Yes” corridor clusters roughly around I-85, an area that has large populations of Latino (closer to DeKalb) and Asian (in Duluth / Suwanee) residents.

The “No” vote, meanwhile, gets stronger the further out from I-285 you get, the Daculas and the Loganvilles. By the white-racist hypothesis, this makes sense. If you reject the white-racist hypothesis, it actually still makes sense: Dacula to Doraville is about 25 miles, which, even if you hire Alon Levy and somehow give him a magic wand so he can make rail construction happen at closer to European costs, is still a good $4 billion. (Officials were guessing $200-300 million per mile before the vote, which, reading Levy, seems optimistic.) If you know the rail project is never going to get close enough to you to let you ditch your car, you either need to be selfless indeed or see other benefits, and the Daculans may simply have never seen those other benefits.

Third, George Chidi, who writes for the GeorgiaPol blog (and who supported MARTA expansion), argued soon after the vote that MARTA supporters didn’t make their case well enough even to black voters:

The MARTA vote lost in large part because of a revolt among black taxpayers in southeastern Gwinnett around Snellville. These voters — who are somewhat more conservative than black voters generally — perceived little personal benefit for paying $100 a year in increased taxes for the services of a bus line, maybe.

…let’s be clear: this was an old-fashioned tax revolt, of exactly the same flavor that killed the statewide T-SPLOST a few years ago. The rebranding of the MARTA governance body as The ATL didn’t help; state government and GDOT haven’t built enough goodwill with the electorate of either party to be trusted with new projects.

I’ll add a fourth possible reason: a lot of potential voters might not have been all that excited by the hub-and-spoke approach MARTA rail is locked into. That goes even for black voters in south Gwinnett. To get from there to black communities in the likes of Stone Mountain or Lithonia, you drive. If the Gold Line gets extended from Doraville to Gwinnett Place Mall, you’d still drive. (Or take the bus, but MARTA, like a lot of transit authorities in the United States, has a hard time selling its buses to the public.) The same calculation applies for residents going from Dacula and Buford to Johns Creek or Roswell. Gwinnett is more diverse, both in the casual way we use the term and in terms of actual demographics; and so is DeKalb, and parts of Fulton north of the city, and parts of Cobb. Because of that, it may be that Gwinnett residents may not value the rail link to downtown and yet still not be “isolationist.”

In short I think the white-racism-led-to-highways-led-to-traffic analysis, while more fairly applied to the 1970 and 1990 votes, loses steam when applied to the March 2019 vote. You can be pessimistic about both race relations generally and about metropolitan Atlanta’s ability to mitigate its congestion by expanding transit options; but the latter doesn’t map as neatly onto the former as it used to.

On that New York Times nail-salon article.

By which I mean "The Price of Nice Nails," by Sarah Maslin Nir (with assistance from a small army). It's getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. There's a Part 2, mainly on the health hazards of working as a manicurist, and there's now a sidebar also by Maslin Nir, "3 Ways to Be a Socially Conscious Nail Consumer," because the Times is not averse to suggesting that you, the reader, whether you get salon manicures or not, want to feel superior to the unidentified customer in the story who threw a fit after one of the workers profiled got nail polish remover on her Prada shoe. (One way to be a conscious nail consumer, social or not: goddamn, y'all, don't wear your expensive shoes out to get pedicures.)

Way #1 is "Interview your manicurist," which raised my eyebrow, since it becomes clear in the article that many of the immigrants working for sub-minimal wages are at a significant disadvantage due to their lack of English. Moreover, it implies a level of trust between worker and customer that is simply not there under the best of circumstances. If you don't have a way to lessen your manicurist's dependency on his or her job in a big hurry, you don't have the ability -- or the right, I'd add -- to force that trust.

Another common reaction is "Tip more," but Maslin Nir pushes back against that one, pointing out that according to her team's findings, the tips won't make their way back to the workers anyway. Jordan Weissmann elaborates over at Slate, and adds that this analysis probably applies to immigrants working in other super-cheap consumer markets -- Chinese food deliveries, for example. (Not directly related, but do check out Emily Guendelsberger's dissection of working as an Uber driver for the Philadelphia City Paper, which also came out yesterday.)

Weissmann thinks the better long-term conscience balm is to press for better labor law enforecement. I'd add that there are already going to be organizations on the ground that know better than the average manicure recipient does what these exploited workers want and need. (To my surprise, it appears Maslin Nir and her team weren't in touch with such organizations when recruiting interviewees.)  For example, Nicole Hallett, the Yale Law professor quoted in both the article and the sidebar, works with Yale Law School's Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, which in turn works with Latino Justice. The Asian Law Caucus has a section on workers' rights. And so on.

A couple more related thoughts:

- I personally am not familiar with what academic literature may exist on how immigrant entrepreneurs treat non-co-ethnic workers. One of my advisers did her dissertation research on undocumented workers in LA's Koreatown and would know more about this than I would.

- Relatedly: reading the article, there were places where I was wincing and wondering how much force the stereotype of Offhandedly Racist, Money-Obsessed Korean Store Owner has in New York City. Korean store owner/black clientele tension was a topic of a fair bit of research in the late 1990s (example, from Kyeyoung Park, who writes frequently on Korean-American entrepreneurship) but I wouldn't call the larger perceptions of Korean-American capitalists nuanced, exactly.

- Interestingly, in the second piece there's actually more discussion of Vietnamese nail salon owners, who are more prevalent nationally, and the division between owner and worker is less pronounced: the implication being that owners and workers alike face health hazards, though the workers have less power to take preventative steps. (See also this piece from KPCC, in Southern California, last year, which frames the health-hazard issue in terms of Vietnamese-Americans of different class levels working proactively.)

- Relatedly relatedly: I haven't read this, but I want to now.

#NotAllKoreaboos: on economic integration, intruding into spaces, the inadequacy of good intentions, and shopping.

One of the things that's been keeping me busy this semester is a studio, run by my co-adviser, looking specifically at the immigrant communities in and around greater Norcross. I haven't said much about it here, and don't plan to, because (a) I don't have permission from the other studio participants to talk about it, and (b) we're going to be conducting interviews with local actors and I certainly don't have their permission to talk about it. When the final report is made public I'll let y'all know.

Suffice to say that I've been thinking about some of the issues we've discussed in the studio space. For example: the idea of "integrating" what I'll vaguely call ethnic-minority concentrated economic activity. ("Ethnic enclave" used to be the term, but the literature's moved beyond that; I need to catch up to the literature.) What does it mean to be "integrated"? How does a space simultaneously serve the needs of a (presumably underserved) minority and the greater public? In order to be "integrated," does a space need to lose the characteristics that made it useful to the minority in the first place? Or to phrase the question a little more aggressively: why should such spaces be required to adjust to majority needs?

So the other day I went up to Duluth, to the shopping center with the H-Mart. (For those of you not familiar with Duluth, it's currently  majority-minority, with 22% of the population reporting Asian descent.) I had errands to run nearby, and we're always in need of groceries; but when I got out of the car I just walked around the shopping center, and ended up pausing in front of a store -- Mimi's, it said, and then 미 미 -- that sold cosmetics. Paused for long enough that it would really look silly if I didn't go inside.

Inside: hair bands, jewelry, cute notebooks , and yes, cosmetics. The store was almost empty save for the two shopkeepers and three other women, younger than me and white. And for the record, my father's family came to north Georgia from England (we think), and my mother's parents were both descended from Ashkenazi Jews of central Europe; which makes me whiter than a mayonnaise factory in a snowstorm.

One of the shopkeepers was demonstrating BB cream or something similar to the group of three. They oohed and aahed. I stuck to the other side of the store, feeling jumpy with embarrassment. I know why you're here, I was thinking in their direction. You're here for the same damn reason I am. And sure enough, when one of the three went in front of me at the cash register, excited at her new find, I saw three rubber bands around her wrist, and one of them said SHINEE World.

I couldn't quite figure out -- I still can't -- why I felt not only out of place but intrusive. The three women I was trying to disassociate myself from weren't acting particularly disrespectful; on the contrary, they seemed thrilled to get the shopkeeper's attention and careful explanation. I got rung up by the older of the two women working there -- I bought a cute notebook, because that's  what I do, and a snail mask, because it said Charmzone on the back and that's one of the few brands I've heard of, and because I have heard enough about the power and advances of the Korean cosmetics industry to hope that a snail mask can do something for the bags under my eyes -- and after she handed me my bag I said, "감사 함니다," (kam sa ham ni da, the formal "thank you"; it's one of three phrases I can say in Korean) and bowed a little, and both shopkeepers smiled at me, though I couldn't say whether they were genuinely charmed or just being indulgent.

And it doesn't make sense, to look down upon people outside a culture to start at one entry point into that culture (K-pop, in this case) and pursue other strands of knowledge about said culture. That's how learning works. That's how the Korean government, to some extent, wants the Hallyu Wave to work in the first place. If you're interested in learning more about Korean cosmetics, isn't going to a Korean-branded store and asking the Korean-American staff there for recommendations among the more respectful ways to do it?

And yet I keep feeling like I'm blundering into delicate territory. Ever since Madeleine Lee posted her "Am I a Koreaboo?" essay I've been turning it over in my mind. (See also this.) Because while Maddie came to K-pop as a way of connecting with a culture that informed her parents' history but hadn't been available to her as a kid, I sort of stumbled upon it with no history at all: I started listening to music, and then developed an affection for some of the people performing the music (or their personae, more accurately), and then wanted to know more. My intentions were, and are, relatively good, but one of my favorite not-actually-William-Blake lines is about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. If you put my curiosity about Korean culture in the context of centuries' worth of Orientalism, it looks less charming and more potentially threatening.

This seems relevant not only to my music writing -- which is still a hobby, no matter how much I enjoy it -- but to my studies of immigrant entrepreneurship as well. How do I make sure that I, as a researcher, respect the experiences, needs, desires, and opinions of the people I presumably want to help? How can I conduct valid qualitative research, given that I haven't been steeped in these cultures and will miss a lot of social and cultural cues? How do I make sure not to make too much of a respectability that will be conferred on my scholarship not because I'm actually doing good work, necessarily, but because I'm white? Planning is a field that, by its very nature, encourages arrogance: you need a certain amount of self-confidence in the first place to follow Burnham's mantra of making no little plans. Throw white supremacy into the mix and there's a lot of room for potential distortion, whatever the researcher's intentions.

I'm still figuring out how to use data, and what my data will look like, and what my research question will look like. I'm still holding back a bit, I think, for fear that what I produce will be not only imperfect but flawed in a predictably, eye-rolling-ly, current-flawed-power-structure-endorsing-ly exclusionary way. I still haven't tried the snail mask.

Why blog (some more)?

Because I miss it.

Because I think writing is like a lot of other things: with more practice I get better at it.

Because I have found, somewhat to my chagrin, that one of the ways I learn is by exposing my arguments -- in all their flawed, half-baked non-glory -- and putting them up for, well, argument.

Because I've already drafted my entire Facebook feed into my dissertation-writing support group, and the rest of the Internet is feeling left out.

Because I like the idea of transparency in thinking and scholarship.

Because y'all have no idea how much you need to know my favorite track on 1989 ("Style," at the moment).

Because it'll be easier for Pejman to link to me now that I'm no longer on Tumblr.

Because I would rather y'all read this rambling silliness than whatever (even less useful) rambling sillinesses I wrote ten years ago that might come up on a search.

Because I have something to say.

Because I want other people (especially women) with something to say to read this and think, "Huh, she thinks she's awesome enough to be read, I'm considerably more awesome than that, I should write too."

Because writing is my way of connecting, of keeping at bay the scripts of loneliness, self-doubt, and self-pity that play, un-usefully, in my head.

Because: hello.