Success Used to Live Here: What the Fall of Gwinnett County Means for White America

Gwinnett County: 91 percent white in 1990; 44 percent white today

There’s an apocryphal story involving Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, and an address he gave to the historically Black college Clark Atlanta University in the 1980s. While addressing the subject of the eroding tax-base in the city and the fear of a diminishing amount of resources (funds) to allocate, Mr. Young addressed white flight with this ominous warning:

“No matter where they go, we will follow. No matter how far away they move, we will follow. They can’t escape us.”

Andrew Young is correct; no matter where white people fled to – from the crime, crumbling business sector, private property devaluations, and poor school systems that accompany a majority Black area –   creating thriving communities in the process, the Black Undertow followed. DeKalb and Clayton County went from being thriving majority white counties to, well, majority Black counties that resembled the Atlanta that whites had fled from in the first place.

The declaration of war set forth by Mr. Young proved true: no matter where whites went, Black would follow; importing the same problems that whites had tried to flee from when an area went majority-lack and eventually overwhelmingly the social capital created in the community to the point of breaking all communal bonds that whites had amassed. 

Back in 1985, Oliver Thomas of the Atlanta Journal Constitution tried to put his finger on why Gwinnett was excelling at such at rapid pace [ Basic reason Gwinnett has prospered is its proximity to Atlanta and Hartsfield, 9-15-1985]:

To say that one of Georgia’s 159 counties, Gwinnett, was the fastest-growing county in America during the first half of the 1980s is true, though not quite comprehensible. To say that a decadelong explosion of everything from new people, new housing, new offices and more cars has left Gwinnett staggering under its own good fortune, is also true but vague.

So consider the implications of these very real numbers:
In 1975, there were 115,400 people nestled quietly in Gwinnett, just northeast of Atlanta.

Four years later, people were pouring into the county at the rate of 1,000 per month. By 1984, that migration surge had doubled. Twenty-three-thousand, five hundred new folks landed in and around Snellville, Lilburn, Lawrenceville and Duluth in the 12-month period ended this past April 1, pushing Gwinnett’s population near the quarter-million mark.

The reasons for this incredible growth are not hard to comprehend.

While the chamber of commerce may credit leadership, and others may claim white-flight, one overriding reason that Gwinnett quickly mushroomed from rural to urban is its proximity to Atlanta and Hartsfield International Airport.

When the Sun Belt migration began, Gwinnett benefited.

Five years ago, a trailer park sprawled over the northwest quadrant of the I-85 and Pleasant Hill Road interchange. Fronting the park, a general store and a gas station serviced the trailer park’s residents and those who motored down the little-traveled two-lane road.

Across the street was a lonely diner, a Waffle House.

It was a heralded chamber-of-commerce event when a freight hauling firm built a terminal on the road between the interstate and Highway 23 to the west.

Pleasant Hill today is a junk food addict’s heaven, with McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Krystal competing with Shoney’s, Mrs. Winners and Red Lobster. They all compete against the once monopolistic Waffle House.

Today the Gwinnett Place mall, with its 150 stores, sits where the mobile homes once were, and an acre of land that cost $20,000 three years ago today brings around $218,000.

This area, around Gwinnett Place, is now considered the nerve center of the county, and residential developers fight to build as close to this mecca as possible. Hotels, office complexes, and more retail centers than imagined just a few years ago have sprouted up near the mall.
 Actually, it was the white people who fled to Gwinnett County and created a thriving community out of pasture land that deserve all the credit for the growth of the county; conversely, it is the departure of white people and the rise of the non-white population in Gwinnett County that are to be credited with its decline.

 Such is the state of Gwinnett County now, which was 91 percent white in 1990, but is now majority-minority [Will Immigration Turn Gwinnett Blue, Governing, Josh Goodman, December 11, 2009:

In 1990, Gwinnett was 91 percent white. Now, it is a different place altogether. “Gwinnett as a whole,” says Bannister, “is becoming a majority-minority group of people.” In fact, it already is one. In the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey, released this fall, the white population was down to 49.9 percent. Marina Peed, an affordable housing developer who works county-wide, says that “there’s no lily white anymore anywhere in the county. I doubt if there’s a single all-white subdivision in the whole county.”

Today, Gwinnett has large populations of blacks, Hispanics and (perhaps most surprisingly) Asians. The county has substantial populations from Indian and Vietnam, as well as people of Asian (especially Korean) descent who are from elsewhere in the United States.

Not only will immigration turn Gwinnett blue – from a solidly Republican county – it will turn all of Georgia blue in a state where Blacks vote in a monolith for Democrats [Shifting Population could help Democrats in Georgia, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Aaron Gould Sheinin, September 2, 2012]

In January 2001, Georgia’s electorate was 72 percent white and 26 percent black, while Hispanics made up less than two-tenths of 1 percent, according to data compiled by the secretary of state. As of Aug. 1, those numbers had changed dramatically.

Blacks now make up 30 percent of active registered voters while whites are at 60 percent. Hispanics make up nearly 2 percent of the electorate after seeing their registration numbers increase from just 933 in 2011 to 85,000 as of Aug. 1.

Thus, Gwinnett County serves as the perfect microcosm for America: whites were able to build a thriving community – replete with crime-free streets, schools (almost with almost all-white pupils) boasting average standardized test scores that made the system one of the tops in the nation, rising property values, and an abundance of the type of social capital that makes opening and being successful in business almost a guarantee – that became the envy of the region. And just as Mr. Young said, “we” (Black people) would follow, early attempts to break the Whitopia in Gwinnett County with the public transit system of MARTA were met with racial resistance [Racism called regional transit roadblock, Atlanta Journal Constitution, July 3, 1987]:

David Chesnut, chairman of the board of MARTA, said Thursday he fears a regional transportation system is a long way off and “the reason is 90 percent a racial issue.”
While Gwinnett and Cobb counties experienced their initial growth from the white flight from Fulton and DeKalb counties, said Chesnut, “I am very disturbed when I hear young professionals tell me they are going to form NNIG – No Niggers in Gwinnett.”

Regardless of what politicians tell him, he knows such people are being honest, Chesnut told the Buckhead Business Association.

Chesnut also told the association:

“I don’t think I need to call any names of politicians who, when asked to comment on the Bernhard Goetz verdict, say, `I think it’s awful that that man would have a gun and would with reckless abandon shoot at those poor black folks.’

“Well, I agree, but I also think that it is terrible that there would exist any condition which would warrant somebody to carry a gun on a mass transit system. We at MARTA are doing everything that is humanly possible to eliminate not only someone carrying a gun on the system, but the cause that would warrant someone to want to.”

During the recent deliberations over the MARTA fare increase, which took effect Sunday, Chesnut said the transit system needed to attract more white riders. About 75 percent of the system’s riders are black, according to a MARTA study.
A look at the racial breakdown of Gwinnett County from 1960 – 2005: From “WHITE FLIGHT AND SPATIAL ASSIMILATION IN NEWLY MULTIRACIAL SUBURBS: THE CASE OF GWINNETT COUNTY, GEORGIA by JAMES LEE”

MARTA never came to Gwinnett County, but a wave of Hispanics immigrants did. You see, white people want cheap housing – which requires cheap labor to keep costs down – so they had no problem having Hispanics build their new homes in areas devoid of Black people.

But guess what? Black people, following the prophecy set by Andrew Young, followed too [Blacks, Hispanics lead metro population growth, Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 18, 2011]:

The last 10 years saw a boom in the number of black, Hispanic and Asian residents in metro Atlanta, while the number of white residents fell in four of the area’s five biggest counties, according to U.S. Census figures released Thursday.

The surge in minorities as a percentage of the population also occurred at the state level. Georgia added 1.5 million people, an 18 percent increase. The Hispanic population grew 96 percent, followed an 81 percent increase in Asian residents and a 26 percent increase in black Georgians. The white population grew less than 6 percent statewide.

Because Atlanta has no natural boundaries (save unsafe neighborhoods that are 100 percent Black), the spread of suburbs can continue in a 360-degree radius. And where ever whites go and setup communities (remember, in 1990 Gwinnett County was 91 percent white after being nearly 100 percent white in 1980), Blacks do follow.

And the demands for political power won’t be far behind [Face of Gwinnett’s Leadership Slowly Changing, Atlanta Journal Constitution, August 22, 2011]:

Though ‘white club’ still dominates, signs of diversity taking place.

Gwinnett long ago made headlines as a majority-minority county, a reality that is readily observed on the streets of the county’s southern and eastern communities. Diversity is reflected in the faces of the men and women passing by. Among the children on school buses. In the signage lining some populous corridors.But there’s at least one area in Gwinnett County where that cultural and ethnic diversity is noticeably absent: the county’s leadership. The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners is all-white and home-grown, and most county department heads are white as well. The same can be said for the county’s Board of Education, many city councils and the various chiefs of police.”It’s been a white club out there,” said Harvey Newman, a Georgia State University professor of public management.


In theory, as the districts of all elected officials are redrawn to reflect the population shifts revealed by the 2010 census, minorities should gain greater opportunities to elect the candidates they favor. The Voting Rights Act protects minorities from being disenfranchised by having their populations split among several districts. Where concentrations of minorities exist, political districts should reflect those concentrations.

“It would be a travesty that if after redistricting, the entire County Commission and school board is Caucasian — it would tell me that something went wrong,” said state Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Tucker, who grew up in Lilburn.The math is complicated, however, by the fact that minorities often do not vote in proportion to their share of the population. Gwinnett looks to be no different.In 2010, white people made up 44 percent of Gwinnett’s population but 59 percent its active voters; black people were 23 percent of the population and 22 percent of active voters; Asians were 11 percent of residents and 5 percent active voters; Hispanics were 20 percent of residents and 4 percent of active voters.

 It won’t be long until the new majority-minority is permanently a Democrat stronghold, with the once all-white, all-white Republican county just another reminder of a past where racial socialism didn’t reign. And not one white Republican (oxymoron, right?) will dare speak out on this, a tragic reminder that Gwinnett County is but a microcosm for the nation at large.

And with the drop in the overall white percentage of the population, the inevitable drop in the standard of living (a regression to the mean) has occurred in Gwinnett County [Atlanta property taxes: Gwinnett is Foreclosure Central in metro Atlanta
AJC special investigation: County’s appraisals have dropped, but not enough, Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 24, 2010]

Two decades ago, Rebecca Carlson’s subdivision in Lawrenceville bustled with hard-working, middle-class families. At Christmastime, neighbors lit up their homes with colorful displays. At night, people could walk their streets without fear.
Then subprime mortgages flooded the market, and Quinn Ridge Forest changed. Some new residents let their grass grow 3 feet high, Carlson said. Others let broken windows stay broken. Many longtime homeowners have sold their properties and bolted.

Now, Carlson said, the house next door is filled with renters who come and go. The police have been called to two nearby homes, one for prostitution, the other for illegal drugs.

“I won’t let the kids go outside by themselves,” said Carlson, 45.

The decay of the neighborhood tracks closely behind the collapse of the housing market. Gwinnett County has become the foreclosure capital of metro Atlanta — 44 percent of its 10,301 home sales in 2009 were bank sales — and that foul wave washed over Quinn Ridge Forest, too. At the moment, three of the 12 houses on the market there are bank sales.

The county looks no better in 2010: with 26,502 foreclosure notices for the year, Gwinnett surpassed Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Clayton counties, according to Equity Depot, which tracks foreclosure and other real estate trends in metro Atlanta.

And yet, no one ever dares ask the important question: what are the costs associated with Andrew Young’s declaration coming true? Well, here’s your answer [Gwinnett County’s dramatic demographic shift illustrates question: “Who are We?”, David Pendered, Saporta Report, September 5, 2012]:

The notion that Gwinnett County is home to a population that’s predominately white and affluent is as out-of-date as the idea that two painted water towers along I-85 in Norcross still proclaim: “Success Lives Here.”

The 40-year-old towers were torn down two years ago. In the decade before their demolition, 40,000 whites had moved out of Gwinnett. Now, the county’s population is predominately non-white, and less wealthy and less educated than it was in 2000.

The demographic shift in Gwinnett speaks to the broader question of “Who are We?” That was the topic Wednesday, at the quarterly meeting of the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum.

Out of the entire two-hour program, the most stunning report was provided by Lejla Slowinski, executive director of the Lawrenceville Housing Authority.

Slowinski provided a snapshot of Gwinnett’s population that gave some real heft to the demographic report on the metro Atlanta region that was delivered by Michael Rich, an associate professor of political science at Emory University who heads Emory’s Office of University-Community Partnerships.

Slowinski prefaced her remarks by saying she would talk later about ways in which Gwinnett’s civic and government leaders are leveraging the county’s diversity. But first, she said, she wanted to provide a bit of context about Gwinnett.

Speaking without any visual aids, such as a PowerPoint slide show, Slowinski riveted the audience’s attention with a cascade of nuggets derived from the 2000 and 2010 Census reports. The data shows that Gwinnett isn’t just changing – it is a changed community:

  • Per capita income has fallen by $7,000;
  • The proportion of whites in the overall population has fallen to 49.3 percent from 67 percent;
  • No single Census tract has a white population of greater than 90 percent;
  • 32 percent of households speak a language other than English;
  • 61 percent of students in the county school system are non-whites;
  • High school graduation rates for non-whites rose to 70 percent from 50 percent;
  • 25 percent of Gwinnett commuters spend at least 45 minutes a day in the car.

Sources other than the Census provide additional insights:

  • 18 percent of Gwinnett’s children live in poverty;
  • The county’s poverty rate rose from 5.6 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2009;
  • The number of foreclosures in Gwinnett has topped Fulton since 2009 (Fulton formerly had the region’s highest number of foreclosures).

One relevant point is that Gwinnett’s government and school board are trying to serve the human needs of this population with an ever-decreasing amount of tax revenues.

At the Piece by Piece annual meeting last week, Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said the county’s digest has dropped 25 percent during the past five years. That decrease has reduced the amount of property taxes collected by the county and school system, which is the main source of funding for both governments.

“The population has continued to diversify,” Nash said. “According to the 2010 Census, Gwinnett was the most diverse county in the southeast. That very different from what it was 20 years. It’s created language considerations, and the demand for additional types of flexibility in terms of how we deal with the community.”

Slowinski said the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce works diligently to reach out to, and serve, the minority business community. The number of firms owned by Hispanics and African Americans is still a small proportion of the overall mix, but it’s growing, she said.


Success no longer lives in Gwinnett County; diversity does.Those water towers that came crashing down in a controlled demolition boasted about the climate of the county when it was brimming with white families; now, the social capital is all but gone; the great social experiment in diversity continues unabated.

And a county created by “white flight” from Black people, now see “white flight” from what silence on racial matters (yes, it is white people that are responsible for “good schools,” and “safe, crime-free subdivisions”) will wrought [White Flight in Gwinnett?, Atlanta Journal Constitution, November 15, 2005]:

Mary James, an empty-nester from Snellville, craves the in-town bustle. Michelle Forren is tired of planning life around rush hour in Duluth. And Louise Stewart is fed up with the Spanish-language business signs, backyard chickens and overcrowded homes in her Norcross-area neighborhood.

Though their reasons vary, all three women plan to join an emerging demographic: whites leaving Gwinnett County.

In what might surprise metro Atlantans who remember the nearly lily-white county of old, Gwinnett’s non-Hispanic white population declined for the first time last year, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The drop of about 1,500 whites came even as Gwinnett, the state’s perennial growth leader, added more than 27,000 residents.

One year doesn’t make a trend. And some observers question the census estimates. But the figures offer more evidence that the number of whites is at the very least leveling off in Gwinnett, adding a new dimension to a lightning-fast demographic shift that has transformed a once-uniform suburb into what one Washington think tank called a “mini-Ellis Island.”

The number of Hispanics in Gwinnett is now more than 12 times what it was in 1990, according to the latest census estimates. The Asian population has increased more than sixfold. And the black population has grown sevenfold. Until recently, the white population was growing, too, just not as fast. The county is now 57 percent white, down from 90 percent in 1990.

Louise Radloff, a member of the Gwinnett County school board for more than 30 years, said the additions have enriched her district between Norcross and Lilburn. It’s the subtractions that hurt. Many schools in the area are now less than 10 percent white.

“It’s called white flight,” Radloff said. “There is a perception that with the diversity, there is low-income and there is crime. We need to learn to cope with these issues and decide that all men are created equal.”

Bart Lewis, chief of the research division at the Atlanta Regional Commission, said any “white flight” from Gwinnett is limited. It’s a far cry, he said, from what happened a generation ago in parts of Atlanta and DeKalb County, where neighborhoods changed practically overnight as white families moved to outlying areas such as Gwinnett.

In fact, Lewis finds it hard to believe that the number of whites isn’t still rising in Gwinnett. Accurate racial breakdowns are difficult to estimate, particularly at the county level, he said.

Lewis sees the shift in Gwinnett as driven more by economics than race, anyway. Lower-income families scouring metro Atlanta for an affordable house or apartment are landing in the aging neighborhoods of western Gwinnett. Most of them happen to be minorities, Lewis said.

“What I think you’re really seeing is an evacuation of more-affluent households of one race replaced by less-affluent people of another race,” he said.

For those paying attention, Gwinnett County is the apt metaphor for modern America. And, wherever white people go, wherever they create thriving communities, the warning set-forth by Andrew Young remains:

 “No matter where they go, we will follow. No matter how far away they move, we will follow. They can’t escape us.”

Success can’t live again in America until people dare say the reason Gwinnett County was once the fastest growing county in the nation, and why it now is failing.

Four letters. One word. Race.


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