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White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism

reviewed by P. Rudy Mattai & Jacqueline M. Williams - February 01, 2008

coverTitle: White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism
Author(s): Kevin M. Kruse
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691133867, Pages: 325, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Kevin Kruse’s work, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, ostensibly

…seeks to explore not simply the effects of white flight, but the experience . . .[arguing]. . . that [white flight] represented a much more important transformation in the political ideology of those involved . . . [whereby] white southern conservatives were forced to abandon their traditional, populist, and often starkly racist demagoguery and instead craft a new conservatism predicated on a language of rights, freedom, and individualism.  (p. 6)

In supporting his presumably novel characterization of white privilege, Kruse proffers what is seemingly an apology on behalf of whites, suggesting that “. . . If we truly seek to understand segregationists - not to excuse or absolve them - then we must first understand how they understood themselves” (p. 9). That understanding is rather interesting. He crafts such an understanding within the context of individual rights concluding that, “. . . southern whites fundamentally understood their support of segregation as a defense of their own liberties, rather than a denial of others’” (p. 9). Using the City of Atlanta as a case study apparently par excellence, he argues that issues such as racism, segregation, backlash and ‘white flight’ can only be “. . . dissected and discussed in any meaningful detail” (p. 9), if done through this microscopic spatial treatment.

Using the rather questionable sloganeering of someone who may charitably be referred to as an opportunist, “The City Too Busy to Hate,” coined by the notorious William Barry Hartsfield, Kruse renders a socio-historical analysis that is fairly accurate insofar as the socio-cultural and political aspects are concerned but leaves out some aspects that raise pointed questions about his analysis. He portrays Hartsfield as an accomodationist and, in doing so, softens some of the dastardly acts that were wrought by Hartsfield and other prominent white politicians who really never changed their ideological orientations of black folks. Indeed reading Kruse’s work without addressing some of the earlier historical antecedents that shaped the socio-political and cultural fabric of the City of Atlanta, gives one the impression, and certainly Kruse prematurely and somewhat myopically concludes, that:

. . . the idea of the ‘city too busy to hate’ was invented and sustained by a moderate coalition born not out of chance but through careful calculation. . . . [W]hite politicians and corporate leaders were just as segregationist in their thinking as other whites of the city.  But they were practical. They discovered to their delight that progressive politics-or the appearance of it, at least- resulted in economic progress and profits.  (p. 41)

While one may at first blush or from a rather cursory reading of Kruse’s conclusion ponder whether such a statement is somewhat misleading or condescending insofar as the role that blacks played in this drama, Kruse hastens to diffuse such thoughts by asserting that:

. . . although the white leadership thought of themselves as using their black partners, the African American community used them in return . . . [forging] their own kind of progress, social as well as economic, within the workings of the coalition [whereby] both sides stood united through the 1940s and 1950s in pushing an agenda of progress and suppressing the segregationist sentiment of working class and middle class whites. (p. 41)

But Kruse’s haste to provide a seeming rationalization for the tenuous relationship between whites and blacks in Atlanta, and by implication for most of the country, can best be described as myopic.

Stanley Harrold and Randall M. Miller in their role as Series Editors to the Southern Dissent Series in penning the Foreword to Mixon’s The Atlanta Riot: Race, Class, and Violence in the New South (2005), aptly comment that, “. . . The Atlanta that later boasted that it was ‘a city too busy to hate’ was built on hate” (p. x). In fact Mixon’s fascinating treatment of the Atlanta Riot of 1906 is a crucial piece to understanding the political machinations that undergirded ‘White Flight’ in Atlanta, which Kruse so euphemistically characterizes as the foundation of modern conservatism. What Kruse crafts as a city born out of a moderate coalition that was calculated on the premises of progressive politics was indeed much more complex than the simple equation he advances.  Mixon concludes that:

The Atlanta Riot of 1906 was a seminal movement in race relations. It marked the end of personal paternalism that has characterized ante-bellum and some post-Civil War race relations in Atlanta. . . . White opposition to every aspect of black freedom and autonomy provoked the Atlanta Riot of 1906. . . The riot installed the disenfranchisement as the capstone to four decades of political reform and institutionalized segregation as the dominant form of race relations. (pp. 129, 130)

Mixon’s analysis is of paramount importance for it lays bare Kruse’s argument that whites were practical in the manifestation of their political actions, which gave birth to his conceptualization of modern conservatism, and that blacks forged their progress within the workings of such an environment supposedly engineered by white power-brokers. Mixon notes that prior to the genesis of this moderate coalition of which Kruse speaks, and which to his mind leads to the making of modern conservatism,

As some African Americans rose out of poverty and rural depression to acquire permanent jobs, they were able to become politically active from the 1880s to 1906 [and the] goal of this black ‘elite’ was to participate equally with the white commercial civil elite in the exercise of power but at the same time, to carry out the responsibility of uplifting their race by elevating blacks to a property-owning status that produced citizens and city builders . . . For African Americans, Atlanta seemed to be a place where an elite could emerge, grow, and mature. (pp. 3, 129)

In fact, not only was there an identifiable black elite and intelligentsia in Atlanta that was intent on power-sharing with whites, but they were well-supported by the black working class.  Furthermore, many among this same black elite and intelligentsia who had perceived that the Riot of 1906 had somehow changed the attitude of white power-brokers from antagonism to cooperation were slow in concluding that the intent of the white power-brokers was really to “. . . define the black elite and intelligentsia’s role for the ensuing decades as a rubber stamp of the commercial civic-elite” (Mixon, p. 127).         

The black elite of whom Kruse, et al., have spoken did not merely wage the struggle for equality of rights ‘within the coalition’ but had waged such a struggle in spite of the coalition and whose actions had predated the emergence of that ‘moderate coalition’ of which Kruse so condescendingly makes reference. Indeed the struggle engineered by the black elites and intelligentsia had a much more profound ideological orientation rather than the superficial “. . . progressive politics-or the appearance of it at least- [which] resulted in economic progress and profits. . . ” (p. 41)  for whites and ostensibly for blacks as well. Karen Ferguson (2002), borrowing the term coined by Higginbotham (1993), the ‘politics of responsibility’, to describe the comprehensive and truly progressive political actions of the black elites and intelligentsia, contends that:

. . . By teaching African Americans to live lives of bourgeois respectability, black reformers sought to find “common ground on which to live as Americans of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.” Through these shared moral and behavioral standards, black reformers sought to be seen as “both black and American” working against white rhetoric which would “deny this possibility by isolating the ‘Negro’s place’ within physical and symbolic spaces of inferiority.” (Higginbotham, p. 188 cited in Ferguson, 2002, p. 5)  

In reality, the black political struggle which extended way after the notorious Atlanta Riot of 1906 transcended the presumed myopic gains of which Kruse speaks, and as Ferguson concludes, “. . . The rhetoric of respectability, then, was a liberationist tactic to demonstrate African Americans’ citizenship, deny white justifications of their imposed marginality, and move toward full inclusion in public life” (p. 5).  

Finally, with respect to the seeming “moderate coalition” which Kruse largely accrues to the initiative of white power-brokers, and in fact which may qualify as a surrogate for the manifestation of the culturally suspect model suggested by Kalen, there is reason to believe that such an analysis stops short of discussing the tenuous nature of such a coalition. Burman (1979) in an interesting article, The Illusion of progress: Race and politics in Atlanta, Georgia, using the theoretical constructs of the Famous American sociologist, Talcott Parsons, who may be considered as one of the most formidable exponents of the pluralist orthodoxy, made some conclusions then that continue to have currency and did so even during the period covered by Kruse:

What exists in Atlanta then is a stalemate; but it is not one resulting from the opposition of evenly balanced forces, rather it is a form of mutual negativism in which no group can achieve its goals, but is able to prevent any other group from achieving theirs [primarily because] . . . the present [unequal] balance of forces has produced negative conflict rather than constructive compromise, as the classical pluralist model would have it. (p. 452)  

This analysis by Burman brings into sharp questioning the contention by Kruse (2005) that the “idea of a ‘city too busy to hate’ was invented and sustained by a moderate coalition born not out of chance but through careful calculation” (p. 41) (emphasis added). Burman describes neither a moderate coalition nor careful calculation.  

Kruse’s discussion of school desegregation in Atlanta is also another instance where his analysis falls short of supporting his thesis. It is interesting to note that in spite of Kruse’s conclusion to his book,  

No matter how sincere conservatives may be in insisting that their policies are ‘color blind’-and, to be sure, a great number of them are sincere- a closer reading of the historical record shows that the policies of race and racism did inspire policies that now seem to have little to do with race (p. 266),

he does not provide evidence for such conclusions. Indeed Kruse does not factor in the historical antecedents in Atlanta’s history to predispose many of those whom he characterizes as ‘color blind’ to overtly/covertly manifest elements of racism. Mark Bauerlein (2001) in his analysis of the Atlanta Riot of 1906 concluded that:  

The former seat of black intellectual life and moderate white progressivism, Atlanta was now the base of organized racist aggression. Condemned as cowardly, illegal, and lower class in 1906, vigilantism emerged in 1915 as community wisdom. . . . In 1915 the racist fervor continued, now not as radicalism, but as common sense. White supremacy no longer had to discharge itself in a race riot. Atlanta had become the hub of negrophobia.  (p. 289)  

Indeed what Kruse sees as the emergence of modern conservatism was a continuation of the underlying ideology of negrophobia among whites, and the unleashing and manifestation of that ideology became visible among lower socio-economic whites but was never firmly condemned by those who wielded seemingly legitimate power. One is hard put to see how Kruse could view new modes of manifesting racism as the making of modern conservatism rather than the manifestation of the proverbial putting “new wine in old wine bottles.”  In fact he characterizes those new modes of manifesting racism as the “transformation of segregationist rhetoric”:

The transformation of segregationist rhetoric in the postwar era had led southern conservatives to reject the traditional appeals to populism and racism and instead embrace a new, middle-class rhetoric of rights and responsibilities. The change in language had made segregationist politics much more palatable to whites inside the city, and it remained attractive to those in the suburbs. (p. 245)

Kruse’s discussions on Atlanta’s efforts at providing magnet schools to ostensibly arrest white flight is neither novel to Atlanta nor reflective of the modern conservatism in Atlanta. Christine Rossell (1992) details rather poignantly a similar situation in several geographical entities outside the South (most prolifically in Buffalo, New York), describing them as private schools with public financing specifically aimed at stemming the flow of white flight. Indeed, Brown-Nagin (2004) provides an intriguing discussion of Atlanta’s school desegregation in which he shows that not only was this not a result of a “moderate coalition born out of chance but a careful calculation among white politicians and corporate leaders” (Kruse, 2005, p. 41), but rather it was a calculated attempt by black leaders to take administrative control of the public school system. According to Plank and Turner (1987), as a result of the notorious/famous Atlanta Compromise of 1973 which was conceived and implemented by black leadership in Atlanta,

Black control of the school system was made complete when black voters, a majority in city politics for the first time, elected a black mayor and a black majority of the school board . . . [and] . . . , the Atlanta case study suggests that the goal of integration was pursued by local black leaders as the most effective strategy for bringing about improvement in the educational opportunities available to blacks. (pp. 602, 603)

To be sure, Kruse has made a great contribution to the understanding of race and politics in Atlanta but has not established a case for Atlanta’s version of race and politics as the making of modern conservatism. Atlanta’ version of race and politics is reflective of a city that is distinctive not only in terms of its racial make-up but of the preponderance of blacks who occupied professional and entrepreneurial groups at all levels of the social and political strata. What Kruse has shown in his analysis is no more than a manifestation of the Interest-Convergence Theory situated in Critical Race Theory Literature and which was quite evident in several cities spread all over the United States.  



Bauerlein, M.  (2001).  Negrophobia: A race riot in Atlanta, 1906.  San Francisco: Encounter Books.   

Brown-Nagin, T.  (2004).  The impact of lawyer-client disengagement on the NAACP’s campaign to implement Brown v. Board of Education in Atlanta.  In Lau, P. E. (Ed.).  From the grassroots to the supreme court: Brown v. Board of education and American democracy. 227-244.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Burman, S.  (1979).  The illusion of progress: Race and politics in Atlanta, Georgia.  Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2(4), 441-454.

Ferguson, K.  (2002).  Black politics in new deal Atlanta.  Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Harrold, S. C., & Miller, R. M.  (2005).  Foreword.  In Mixon, G.  The Atlanta riot: Race, class, and violence in a new south city.  Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Higginbotham, E. B.  (1993).  Righteous discontent: The women’s movement in the black Baptist church, 1880-1920.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mixon, G.  (2005). The Atlanta riot: Race, class, and violence in a new south city.  Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Plank, D. N., & Turner, M.  (1987).  Changing pattern in black school politics: Atlanta, 1872-1973.American Journal of Education, 95(4), 584-608.

Rossell, C.  (1992).  The carrot or the stick for school desegregation policy: magnet schools or forced busing.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 01, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14965, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:37:16 AM

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About the Author
  • P. Mattai
    SUNY-College at Buffalo
    E-mail Author
    P. RUDY MATTAI, Ph.D. is Professor, Educational Foundations, SUNY-College at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York, currently President (2006-2009) of the Global Federation of the Associations for Teacher Education (GloFATE) and immediate Past President (2006-2007) of the Association for Teacher Educators (USA). He is the editor of the Child Studies Journal. He is also CEO & Principal Associate of Cosmos Consulting Associates, LLC, a private corporation that focuses on educational program development, assessment, evaluation and personnel recruitment internationally at all levels of private and public education. His research areas are race and ethnic issues in schooling, community and schooling, and urban education; he has published widely in those areas. He has received numerous awards and consults nationally and internationally on diversity issues and program development and evaluation.
  • Jacqueline Williams
    Edison College-Charlotte Campus
    E-mail Author
    JACQUELINE M. WILLIAMS, Ed.D. is currently a Project Director, Edison College-Charlotte Campus, Punta Gorda, Florida where she is overseeing the development of a Collegiate Charter School. She has been an instructor in Exceptional Education in public schools in New York and Florida and has taught in both traditional and nontraditional classrooms. She is actively engaged in school board administration, pursues research activities in the area of the gifted and talented and issues of cultural diversity and schooling, and publishes in both areas. She is President of Global Educational Services which provides a vast array of consulting services in P-20 educational levels internationally and has received numerous academic awards including the Certificate of Excellence Award and a Minority Fellowship Award, SUNY-College at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York.
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