A lot can happen in 20 years; it’s hard to believe “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee’s searing portrayal of urban race relations, debuted way back in 1989 when “Poppy” Bush was in the White House and asking us to read his lips. Two decades hence, we’ve wished “buh-bye” through gritted teeth to the Junior Bush-in-chief.
For Bush II’s beleaguered successor, fixing the economy and restoring our battered national character at home and abroad are, of course, top priorities. But, by virtue of his cross-cultural ancestry, President Obama is also implicitly tasked with re-defining our outdated notions about race.
On that score, Obama certainly has his work cut out for him. Come to think of it, as residents of metro Atlanta, so do we.
Hopefully, the recent 20th Anniversary celebration of “Do the Right Thing” at the Fox Theater will occasion more than wistful nostalgia for the late 80’s. It’s an opportunity also for metro Atlanta to examine anew some of the troubling issues Lee’s film dared to raise.
For those unfamiliar with the movie, it focused on simmering racial tensions between African-Americans and Italian-Americans living and working in a New York neighborhood during a sweltering summer. While a fictional account, the film’s violent denouement reflected the disturbing realities of the times with unsettling and prescient accuracy.
“Do the Right Thing” isn’t my favorite “Spike Lee Joint” (which is what he calls all his movies), but it has survived as a generational touchstone for those seeking to understand the conflicted role of race, specifically the all-too familiar tensions between blacks and whites.
To his credit, Lee has become America’s cinematic provocateur-in-residence by forcing us to confront inbred racial prejudices. Unlike the characters in “Do the Right Thing,” however, there are real-world consequences for a society that bases decisions on racial animosities rather than more rational considerations.
There’s good evidence that blindly following our tribalistic racial impulses will make it difficult – if not utterly impossible – to “do the right thing” when it comes to critical policy matters such as housing, environmental protection and transportation.
Here in metro Atlanta, the mummified legacy of a less enlightened, pre-Obama era abound. For example, it has always been an open secret that the majority of black Atlantans live in communities south of I-20 while a majority of their white counterparts reside north of that asphalt Maginot Line.
Despite the passage of tough laws that expressly forbid housing discrimination, blacks and whites still engage in a mostly unspoken, and voluntary form of self-segregation that seems immune to the passage of time or the dictates of common sense.
I live in predominantly black south DeKalb County, for instance, and more than a few of my affluent and admittedly liberal neighbors express their open contempt for “white folks” for reasons they can never clearly articulate. It’s probably safe to assume that such feelings are mutual in some enclaves of north DeKalb among whites who share similarly uninformed opinions of “black folks” they don’t want living next door.
Historically, the region’s racially lopsided housing patterns have played out in other ways. MARTA has failed to thrive, in large part, because the mostly white residents of Cobb and Gwinnett counties refused to allow regional transit into their communities more than 30 years ago. Many who opposed mass transit at the time said they feared it would lower property values and usher crime into their communities, which was an unsubtle way of saying they didn’t want Blacks moving in.
There is no ironic justice in the current demographic reality that Gwinnett County is now “majority-minority” with more black and Latino residents than whites. Presumably, these newcomers to Gwinnett didn’t depend on MARTA to get there. However, as Gwinnett’s population has swelled along with the rest of the region, the lack of mass transit has condemned all of us to worsening daily commutes on overcrowded highways. Last week, the Texas Transportation Institute ranked the region’s traffic as the third worst in the nation.
Ultimately, the goal of creating a comprehensive transportation system that integrates mass transit and well-maintained roads and highways should have nothing to do with race. By now we’ve learned that gridlock is colorblind.
That’s also true when it comes to building a greener economy that creates good-paying jobs for the rising tide of the unemployed in metro Atlanta, and around the state where the once-vibrant manufacturing sector has dried up. While unemployment has always hit minority communities hardest, it’s an equal-opportunity threat to everyone’s quality of life.
Likewise, building codes requiring that every home and apartment adhere to exacting environmental and energy efficiency standards should apply to all, not just those who can afford to go “green.” Although such prescriptions are somewhat more expensive on the front end, over time they’re environmentally and economically sound. Whether you’re an African-American retiree living on a fixed-income in Atlanta’s West End or a white Baby Boomer in Alpharetta earning a six-figure salary, you have a vested interest in clean water and better air quality.
Metro Atlanta’s green community has blossomed in recent years, despite stiff opposition by the entrenched political and business lobbies that have stymied reasonable efforts to preserve our natural environment. But many of those stalwart environmental groups have done a poor job of reaching out to minority communities, and vice versa. If we’re truly serious about improving the region’s environmental prospects, that longstanding racial disconnect must be addressed.
Long before Spike Lee’s “joints” started stirring controversy in movie theaters and living rooms, another of Atlanta’s native sons – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. –spoke with unrivaled eloquence about fostering a “beloved community” where racial distinctions were rendered meaningless.
As Obama’s election demonstrates, we’ve made remarkable progress since then. But instead of patting ourselves on the back or twiddling our thumbs, this question hangs in balance for residents of metro Atlanta: Can we somehow overcome our prejudices in order to do what’s right for the region?