While many political observers across the nation focused with keen-eyed attention to Tuesday night’s gubernatorial election in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams sought to become the nation’s first black woman governor, an equally racially-contentious matter was on the ballot last night — one that went largely unnoticed outside of an Atlanta suburb, where wealthy white people pushed an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to secede from their black-led town.
A ballot initiative to partition off the most affluent — and overwhelmingly white populated — sections of Stockbridge from its predominately black communities failed in Tuesday’s midterm voting. By a vote of 3,473 in favor and 4,545 in opposition, residents in the existing Henry County city rejected a controversial proposal to carve out a new town — to be called Eagle’s Landing — from within its boundaries.
Like the state’s gubernatorial election, where issues of voter suppression and bigoted robocalls provided a racist backdrop to otherwise high-minded campaign themes, the Eagle’s Landing effort drew heavily upon white residents’ rejection of black political leadership, while claiming that their real motive was economic development for the city.
Secessionist movements are a real thing in various parts of the United States, where groups of like-minded people seek to withdraw from their communities when social, racial, religious, or other cultural changes occur not to their liking. For example, a Texas group was inspired by the 2016 British vote to leave the European Union, prompting the Texas Nationalist Movement to attempt a so-called “Texit” effort, which drew a rebuke from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
But, in Georgia, the effort was more serious and came much closer to reality.
In an article published prior to Tuesday’s vote, Brentin Mock of the City Lab, an online news site that focuses on urban issues, interviewed Vikki Consiglio, chair of the Committee for the City of Eagle’s Landing, who offered an illuminatingly frank explanation for her community’s secessionist movement. According to her, the wealthy white residents wanted upscale restaurants, but feared that such businesses wouldn’t come to the area because of the less affluent — and predominately black — communities that make up the northern half of the city.
“It came up to, you know, form a city because that’s the only way you’re going to do it,” Consiglio told City Lab, referring to the goal of attracting restaurants such as The Cheesecake Factory to the area. “And if this could happen, we’d have more control of our area, and we’d get to see what comes in here. We’d get to control zoning. We’d get to control code enforcement. Then we can hopefully hold the carrot out and say we want a Cheesecake Factory.”
What’s revealing about Consiglio’s comments is the naked admission that white residents in the city want control over the city’s levers of power, which currently reside in the grip of the city’s black elected officials. Last year, the city elected Anthony Ford as the first black mayor, along with its first all-black city council in the city’s century-long history.
As Mock described in the City Lab article, Stockbridge residents eschewed the traditional form of white flight of moving away from a community as it elects black leaders, instead opting to “[stand] their ground…building new municipal borders around their mansion and fortresses.”
Realizing their wealth wasn’t enough to support a new city on its own, Consiglio, a member of the Henry County zoning board, created a nonprofit group that plotted how to obtain tax receipts from a nearby shopping district that sits within Stockbridge to provide stable revenues for their proposed new city, a move that would raid the existing community’s coffers and impoverish its black residents. Additionally, they carved out other affluent parts of the county to make the numbers work in Eagle’s Landing’s favor.
Then, they pressed state legislators for permission to do what had never been done in the state before: incorporate a new city from within the borders of an existing city. Typically, new municipalities in Georgia are formed from unincorporated land, not poached from existing jurisdictions. In what came as a surprise to the black leaders of Stockbridge, the Eagle’s Landing secessionists successfully persuaded Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia legislature to change state law, permitting the redrawing of Stockbridge’s borders — against the city leaders’ will — and place the initiative on this year’s midterm ballot.
“When we talked to the governor about this probably almost two months [before he signed the bills], I led off the conversation and Governor Deal was sitting just as close to me as you and I are sitting to one another right now,” Ford, the Stockbridge mayor, told City Lab. “I really honestly believed that he would [veto the bills] based on the conversation. And so I was quite surprised when he didn’t. Some people said I shouldn’t have been, but I have to admit, I was really surprised about that.”
Ford should remain vigilant as this effort to carve out a “whites-only” community probably isn’t done. As Consiglio told City Lab, she and her supporters want “to control what comes in here and what it looks like.”
“What’s wrong with wanting better?” she asked, rhetorically, “What’s wrong with being able to say I want to control what goes on around me?”
The only certainty is that the failure of the Eagle’s Landing ballot initiative renders the matter moot — for the moment. But residents of Stockbridge would be wise to pay heed: Secessionists never quit and are constantly looking for opportunities to rise again from the ashes of defeat.