Buckhead skyline
Washington CNN  — 

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For now, the effort to carve a new city out of Atlanta is dead, after Republican leaders recently said that they oppose the initiative and want to give the new mayor, Andre Dickens, time to prove his mettle in office.

The movement to separate über-wealthy Buckhead from Atlanta had been percolating for years, but it gained an unprecedented amount of momentum in 2020 and 2021, when calls to establish a new city grew louder amid a spike in crime across the US.

As Bill White, the chairman and CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, put it to CNN, some Buckhead residents feel unsafe in light of ballooning crime. White also emphasized that he’s disappointed that a cityhood referendum won’t be on the ballot in November.

“Maybe we’d win. Maybe we’d lose. I think that we’d win,” he said, referring to “Buckhead City” proponents, though, notably, many Buckhead residents, and in particular business and real-estate owners, are deeply skeptical of withdrawing the wealthy enclave from Atlanta.

Longtime Buckhead resident Beau Trivers, who’s firmly against secession, said that while crime is an issue in Buckhead – as it is in any large urban area – securing cityhood won’t fix the problem.

“Are we going to build a wall around Buckhead?” he asked, jokingly.

Advocates of the split insist that they merely want to avoid crime and get more for what they pay in taxes. But the Buckhead cityhood movement, much like similar initiatives elsewhere in the country, isn’t as straightforward as it might seem at first glance. In fact, these campaigns for cityhood threaten to fray class and race relations.

Buckhead City opponents stress that a break would undercut Atlanta’s tax base. More specifically, it would siphon off some 40% of the assessed value of the city’s property and leave other parts of Atlanta in a potentially disastrous financial situation, per a 2021 analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Further, stripping the city of its resources would only exacerbate the social inequalities – such as the lack of opportunity – that contribute to crime in the first place.

Just as worrying is how redrawing Atlanta’s borders might affect racial divisions. Currently, Atlanta is about 50% Black and 38% White. Sans Buckhead, these figures would become 59% and 31%, respectively. Meanwhile, Buckhead City would be 11% Black and 74% White, according to the above AJC analysis.

Indeed, while proponents of Buckhead cityhood vociferously reject claims that their movement has anything to do with race, it’s clear that secession would only harden the color line.

“In implicit bias tests, there’s heavy automatic association of Black people with criminality,” Sheryll Cashin, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and the author of “White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality,” told CNN. “You don’t have to say, ‘I don’t want poor Black people (in the area).’ You can say, ‘I’m worried about crime. And that’s why I want to secede.’”

The annexation of Buckhead

You could call the effort to carve Buckhead out of Atlanta both a secession movement and a de-annexation movement, according to Dan Immergluck, an urban studies professor at Georgia State University and the author of the forthcoming book “Red Hot City: Housing, Race and Exclusion in Twenty-First Century Atlanta.”

In the 1940s, William Hartsfield, then the mayor of Atlanta, worried that the Black community would become more politically powerful than and out-vote the White community, especially after the end of the White primary system.

“The most important thing to remember cannot be publicized in the press, or made the subject of public speeches,” Hartsfield said to White business leaders in a letter. “Our Negro population is growing by leaps and bounds. They stay right in the city limits and grow by taking more white territory inside Atlanta.”


Hartsfield was determined to use these demographic changes to his advantage.

“If some disproportionately White communities weren’t annexed, Black political power would in time overwhelm White political power,” Immergluck said. “Hartsfield had developed a kind of coalition between White and Black political power. He basically said, ‘If you don’t have this (coalition), you’ll have an increasingly Black city or, in the short run, an increasingly racist, predominantly White government. And we need to maintain a White majority.’”

After a couple of unsuccessful tries, in 1952, Hartsfield secured the annexation of Buckhead and other communities and thus tripled Atlanta’s size. In addition, six White members were added to the City Council, further altering the balance of power.

Immergluck said that the drive for Buckhead secession is similarly racialized.

“The same kinds of motivations to annex Buckhead and maintain White power largely underlie the motivations of Buckhead City proponents,” he said. “I think that conservative backlashes to post-2020 anti-racism activism are finding a voice in some of these cityhood movements.”

Matthew Lassiter, a history professor at the University of Michigan, underscored that class and race are intertwined and highlighted the role that the rhetoric of zoning plays in the Buckhead cityhood movement, whose proponents frequently lay plain their desire to preserve the single-family homes and sprawling estates the district is known for.

“While the rhetoric of single-family neighborhoods is ostensibly color-blind, it has a deep foundation in the racist history of housing development,” Lassiter explained. “It also has to be seen as unapologetically a rhetoric of economic discrimination. In our law and in our politics, the single-family housing framework defends the right of people to exclude others from living near them based on income and economic resources.”

He added that majority-White neighborhoods over the decades have accepted more non-White residents who are affluent enough to purchase homes in their neighborhoods but that they’ve drawn the line at any kind of low-income housing, which often closely tracks race.

“People say, ‘It’s not about race. It’s not about race.’ It is about race. It’s also about class. And the class politics is explicit,” Lassiter said.

Cashin, the Georgetown University Law Center professor, echoed some of Lassiter’s sentiments.

“Zoning, for a century, has been the chief mechanism for controlling the socioeconomic destiny of exclusive places,” she said.

Beyond Buckhead

The Buckhead cityhood movement isn’t anomalous. Similar pushes are taking place elsewhere in the country.

For instance, in 2019, residents in a very White and very affluent suburb in Louisiana’s East Baton Rouge Parish voted to forge a new city: St. George. If it gets out of legal limbo, St. George will be the state’s fourth-richest and fifth-largest city.

The incorporation push began around 2012 as a campaign by parish residents to create a new school district, one free of “underperforming” schools. When this effort failed, residents became more ambitious: They sought to form a new city.

“Definitely race is a part of this equation,” Sharon Weston Broome, the mayor-president of Baton Rouge, said in 2019. “We can talk all around it, but it’s very obvious – look at the district that’s been carved out. The schools are not failing schools, but they are integrated schools.”

The political scientist Nina Yancy charts these dynamics in her new book, “How the Color Line Bends: The Geography of White Prejudice in Modern America.”

“Irrespective of the outcome, the fight over St. George reflects the deeply racialized and economically unequal geography of the Baton Rouge area,” she writes.

Yancy adds that while Louisiana has come far since the unmistakable racism of the Jim Crow era, it isn’t too hard to detect what hasn’t changed in the state: “persistent Black-White inequality as well as White Southerners’ skill when talking about – or around – race,” she writes.

At present, the Buckhead cityhood movement is going nowhere. Trivers, the longtime resident, hopes that the situation stays this way.

“Just generally, I think that we’re stronger together,” he said. “The challenge I have is, Can we ever really sit down and work together to address some of our root problems?”