metropolitan atlanta

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.