I hear it regularly, “The problem with Birmingham is racism.”
One of my first blogs, Let’s move to the suburbs and attack the city, quickly attracted two comments. One was from (I assume) an African American blaming Birmingham’s problems on whites, “The racism is so obvious and so thick you can cut it with a knife.”
The other (I assume) was from a white, “I dare say, and can provide proof that racism in Birmingham is most rampant at City Hall and it is racist African Americans hurling the most racist attitudes.”
It’s clear racism in the early ‘60’s set us back. A confluence of unfortunate circumstance put us front and center. From Bull Conner to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, we became the poster child of everything racism.
However, I don’t think it’s fair to say the average Birminghamian was any more racist than any other Southern city. We did have a few racist superstars, but segregation wasn’t exclusive to us.
But the question is not whether racism was bad fifty years ago. We are asking is racism holding us back today.
Its clear racism does exist in Birmingham. But again, there is racism everywhere.
Why does it seem to be a bigger issue here?
It is our government structure.
Right after Bull Conner’s downfall, the Birmingham region had an opportunity to consolidate cities. Homewood was the first city to vote, but chose to remain separate which set the tone that ultimately resulted in 37 municipalities in Jefferson County.
And look at our municipalities. Most are predominantly white or all black. Compare that to our competing Southern cities.
Nashville and Jacksonville have a unified county-city government but their neighborhoods appear to be every bit as segregated as Birmingham’s.*
When something bad happens in the city of Birmingham, some whites in Trussville (97% white) or Gardendale (97% white) blame the uneducated crooked blacks in Birmingham. And when Birmingham (73% black) or Fairfield (90% black) suffer, there are some African Americans who blame the rich and greedy white people in Mt. Brook (99% white) or Vestavia Hills (94% white).
As the black commenter wrote to my earlier blog, “The businesses in Alabama refuse to do business in Birmingham because the city is predominately black.”
Our friends in Nashville or Jacksonville can’t make that same comment, because Nashville and Jacksonville aren’t white or black cities.
Our government structure brings out the worst in us.
*I’ve never lived in Nashville, Jacksonville, or any other Southern city. Feedback from those of you with first hand experience would be welcome.
David Sher’s goal is to create a conversation on how to fix our fragmented and dysfunctional local government.
David Sher is a partner in Buzz12 Content Marketing and co-CEO of AmSher Receivables Management. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (ONB), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).