The Slate: Snow Didn’t Paralyze Atlanta, Racism Did

“...it is still a fact that you cannot separate anything in the South entirely from the question of race.”

Massive traffic jam in Atlanta

The Slate’s Tracy Thompson asks, “What does racism have to do with gridlock?” Her answer, “In Atlanta, everything.” What follows is a case study in liberal logic in regards to all things South: Racism is the root of all problems—especially when you’re talking about progressive darlings like mass transit.

Thompson casts last week's zombie-apocalypse-esque Atlanta traffic disaster in terms of the racial/racist history of the South:

This week’s weather fiasco in Atlanta, which stranded thousands of commuters on glassy-slick roads and gridlocked the entire metro region for the better part of 24 hours, was caused by a freak snowstorm, they say. And this is true, in the same way it’s true to say the Civil War started because some guys in Charleston, S.C., started lobbing cannon balls at Fort Sumter. But the real problem in Atlanta isn’t snow; the real problem is history.

As it was in the days of the Civil War, it still is in Thompson’s Atlanta. Drawing from the highly critical and reductive classism and racism-focused description of the south by W.J. Cash, Thompson provides what she believes to be the perpetual definitive portrait of southerners:

“Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal … such was the South at its best,” wrote W. J. Cash in his classic 1941 work, The Mind of the South. So far, so good—but Cash goes on to describe some less appealing but still quintessentially Southern traits, among them being “suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and a too-narrow sense of social responsibility.” And, of course, “too great an attachment to racial values”—or, so as not to mince words, racism.

Thompson uses Cash’s description as the framework for her writes-itself explanation of a traffic nightmare that affected all people of all creeds and colors last week—and brought out the best in those people—stating that “you cannot separate anything in the South entirely” from race, and ultimately arguing that the real answer is mass transit. If Atlantans can somehow get over their ingrained racist hatred for it, that is. 

And, of course, there’s race. Race is a recurring motif in the long history of the city-rural divide in Georgia politics, as well as the uneasy history of relations between the leaders in City Hall and the state Capitol just down the street. Much as white Southerners despise being labeled “racist” whenever they vote Republican—and I do understand why that makes them mad—it is still a fact that you cannot separate anything in the South entirely from the question of race.

I was a kid when then-Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. proposed a rapid rail system to link Atlanta to its surrounding suburbs, and I distinctly remember the joke circulating among white people back then, the one that said that MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) actually stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.” Plain and simple, it was white folks’ fear of black folks that explained the failure of a sales-tax hike to fund rapid rail in three of the then five counties making up the metro Atlanta area.

So there you have it. Racism caused the traffic jams that crippled Atlanta. Disagree? Well, if you’re from the south, it’s hard to “separate anything” you think from racism, so...

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