Birmingham: No one wants to talk about race

David SherRecently, I authored an artcle titled, “Surely this article will get me sued.

It was about the daughter of a friend of mine who while studying abroad was asked by a fellow student why Birmingham had a separate bar association for African-Americans.  (Her friend had discovered on the Internet)

I wrote specifically that I was not knowledgeable about our bar associations and I wasn’t being judgmental, but I was concerned with the perception of Birmingham since historically we have had a poor reputation for race relations.

I was immediately accused by commenters of “race baiting”…

“…I thought one of the purposes of this blog/site was to discourage folks from always dragging Birmingham issues through the mud of race relations past or present.  All an article like this does is inject racial issues and tension where none exists.  It serves no purpose. We should be above race baiting and assumptions.”

I don’t know if this is a fair accusation, but the goal of ComebackTown from the very beginning has been “to begin a conversation for a better Birmingham.”  We can’t have a dialogue about a better Birmingham without some discussion of race.

Why is race such a big deal here?  Race is emphasized in Birmingham because of our government structure.

I’ll name a city and you classify it by race…

Mt. Brook

Vestavia Hills



Most of you would agree that Mt. Brook, Vestavia, and Trussville are white cities and Birmingham is black.

What about these cities…




No one would classify these cities as white or black. So why do we say Birmingham’s black? Because we have 37 municipalities in Jefferson County who each define themselves by race.

Nashville, Jacksonville, and Charlotte have unified county/city governments and therefore are not definable. They are neither black nor white.

I don’t know if unified government is best for us, but we have created multiple governments that cause us to focus on our differences.

Ambassador Andrew Young, an early Civil Rights leader, spoke to the Downtown Rotary Club recently.  He said the most segregated hour in America is Sunday morning at 11am.  He said the least segregated is Saturday afternoon at 1pm during football season.  He said the State of Alabama is probably the most integrated state in the nation at that time.

Birmingham doesn’t own racism.  Racism is everywhere.

Let’s continue our conversation on a better Birmingham—race and all.

Let’s turn Birmingham around.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter.  There’s power in numbers(Opt out at any time)

David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising and co-CEO of AmSher Collection Agency.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham)), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).


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7 thoughts on “Birmingham: No one wants to talk about race”

  1. *I am not afraid to talk about race. I want that conversation to be forward thinking…”to what can our conversation lead as regards the growth of one another, the development of our region? I prefer to talk to a diversity of people, but there is room to talk to my white male counterparts, because we often have fears of “slipping up” or saying something that reveals my ignorance of other races. In fact those “slips” if addressed can lead to new awareness and growth.  I can think of 100 + “slips” that I have made which were subsequently addressed. People of other races want us to learn from within. They want to help us. And I assume my diverse sisters and brothers are open to new awarenesses as well. Let’s keep the dialogue going, anytime, anywhere. 

  2. *We need to have more race talk in this city,county,state,and nation.

    The racial and wealth dsparities in this city are real. Not sure a consolidated government between the City and County would change the outcome? More collaberation (code word for race talk for some) among all the cities and school systems in Jefferson County is a start.


    Peace,George Munchus

    Professor of Management at UB  


  3. David, with all due respect, I think it’s a huge oversimplification to say that Birmingham is a “black” city.  And I think it’s flat out wrong to say that all 37 municipalities in Jefferson County “define themselves by race.”  That’s how YOU are defining them, not how they define themselves.  Some of the 37 have overwhelmingly white populations, some have overwhelmingly black populations, and some are more mixed.  But I’m sure none of them, if you asked them to “define themselves,” would begin by describing the racial makeup of their residents.  In any event, I don’t think such blanket statements about the racial makeup of particular cities help us make any kind of progress towards either improved race relations or improved government structure.

    The reality is more complex.  The majority of Birmingham’s (current) residents are black, but certainly not ALL residents, and of course many white residents of Mt Brook, Vestavia, etc, work inside the B’ham city limits, or go to church here, or eat at restaurants, or visit their doctor, or any number of other things.  I suspect if you ask people in Charlotte or Jacksonville whether Birmingham is a “white” city or a “black” city, most of them wouldn’t really have an answer, just like we don’t have an answer about their cities.  That’s because most people outside a particular local area don’t know any details about how that local government is set up, nor do they care.

    I agree with your overall point in this blog, that our government structure could be better than it is.  I would love to see changes and improvements, up to and including unified metro government.  But let’s not use that as a cop-out.  Our less-than-ideal local government structure does not prevent us from making progress as a region, or from growing, or from attracting new business.  The example I will cite again is Atlanta: far more balkanized than Birmingham, with I’m sure at least as many suburbs dominated by one race or another.  Yet Atlanta has grown far faster over the past 50 years.  If fragmented government structure or residential racial segregation prevents growth, how do we explain Atlanta?

  4. *Will, thanks for your comments.  I’m always glad to hear from you.  The objective of ComebackTown is to create a conversation on a better Birmingham–and your forthright response is much appreciated.

    I have given dozen of speeches on behalf of ComebackTown and I always call out the names of the cities mentioned in the above blog and the responses are always “Birmingham is a black city, etc…  People in other cities may not define Birmingham as black, but people in our region certainly do–because the government is African-American.  And there’s no way you cannot define Mt. Brook, Vestavia, etc. as white. (I’ve lived most of my life in Mt. Brook and currently live in Vestavia Hills)

    If we didn’t have multiple municipalities, we wouldn’t have separate cities that could ‘possibly be defined by race.’

    And why has Atlanta grown while metro Birmingham has remained stagnant?  When talking to others, the big difference appears that Atlanta got an International airport and we didn’t. As you know, we were a much better choice.  Our location was better and our weather is better.  I have been told by several people who I very much respect that we were eliminated because this was the early 60’s and we were in racial turmoil.  Remember Atlanta’s slogan–“A City too busy too hate.”

    15 years ago, we had 30 public companies headquartered in Birmingham and we now have 14.  We had 6 S&P companies–we now have only Regions.

    We spend huge sums of money stealing businesses from one municipality to the other within our region.  This money could be spent recruiting from out of state.

    Forbes just released the FBI crime statistics for 2012.  Birmingham was classified as the 6th most dangerous city in American.  However, Birmingham (City) is being compared to Nashville, Jacksonville and other metros.  That means that our crime statistics don’t include the other municipalities in our metro which makes us look dangerous.  There are plenty of dangerous intercity areas in Nashville and Jacksonville, etc.

    Unless we address government structure, we will never be competitive.

    Please continue to comment.  This is a conversation that is critical to our future.

  5. The international airport theory of why Atlanta grew and Birmingham didn’t is another cop-out. It’s not a true story. I have always found the persistence of that story frustrating. I think Birmingham uses that myth to make excuses for our own failures. The real reason I think Atlanta grew faster than Birmingham, and Charlotte and Nashville have grown faster more recently, is just that they’ve worked harder at it. Maybe with a little good luck thrown into the mix. A lot of people in Birmingham today are working pretty hard on improvements, and I believe we’re starting to see results. But we have to keep working if we want to keep making progress. Blaming our problems on something outside our control (whether it’s the airport, the fragmented government, the 1901 constitution, the “black” government of the City of Birmingham, or some other perceived problem) – all those are just excuses. We don’t need to make excuses. We need instead to keep looking for and working on the opportunities we have to improve. 

    On the airport myth, for those that don’t believe it is a myth, I would ask this: what is the actual story? Who exactly made the decision to pick Atlanta over Birmingham? What are the historical sources of information?  Everybody has “heard the story,” but nobody knows where they heard it. Can anyone prove that it’s true? If not, it must be false. 

  6. Is Birmingham considered – a black town.  I’m creating a market plan for a book launch, the statistics shows your city  is 28% black.  Is that correct? I was surprised because I always thought the number was higher.  I guess it’s because of your great history, as the birthplace for change in America.

    I’m from NJ, and have always viewed your Alabama city as a tough place, but a place where change can happen.  I covered our first 200 years of America as an illustrated HD eBook and now I’m working on a marketing plan by city.  That’s how I found this blog.   The problem today is not so much black or white, it’s how do we all work together to open the economy,  making it easier for all of us to stand up new businesses.  

    By the way, my marketing plan shows if I want to sell 1 million e-books to share our American story, I need to sell 21,000 in your town.  Wow guess I be visiting blogs for the next 2 years. (there’s got to be a better way.)  My personal challenge . Thanks!


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