One Hometown at a Time: Transforming the American Political Landscape

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. As we enter the holiday season, the Millennial Fellows have chosen to explore the ideas of community and home. 

“Plan to Stay” is the motto of Peachtree City-- my hometown-- and the largest city in one of the geographically smallest counties in Georgia: Fayette County. Peachtree City maintains a steady hum of quaint cosmopolitanism, where newly renovated strip malls and an outdoor amphitheatre are accessible by family golf cart, and daily life is permeated by a quiet, pastoral idealism underpinned by conservative Christian values. It is a pristine and meticulously pre-planned community, rooted in the surrounding rural farmland that was once tilled by enslaved African Americans who made up the majority of the population. Even earlier, before the Georgia Land Lotteries of 1821 and 1827 that led to the forcible removal of native populations, Muscogee (Creek) people called this place home.

Today, Peachtree City is home to mostly outsiders, says Tony, a retired sixth-generation white Fayette County resident who spends his time volunteering for the Fayette County Historical Society. One of only 149 students in his graduating class at the lone county high school, Tony went on to spend over two decades working at the local water treatment plant. He is one of the few people left who can actually trace his roots in Fayette County back to the mid-nineteenth century. Tony is largely right when he calls the people in Peachtree City outsiders.

Founded in 1959 in anticipation of the 1960s Atlanta airport expansion, Peachtree City flourished as new residents, predominantly white, flocked to the area and were welcomed by zoning regulations that favored lower-density, single-family housing. By 2016, the population reached an estimated 35,000 people. This rapid growth was in part due to policies from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) that explicitly promoted white home ownership while discriminating against blacks. According to a study by The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, “a strong emphasis on lower density, single-family housing has an implicit discriminatory effect on minorities and lower-income households” since these homes are generally more expensive and restrict low and moderate income households from affording homes.

It may come as no surprise then that, despite the influx of new residents, the community has not changed much, at least according to Tony. People are drawn to the good schools and low crime, and they are united by shared identities and values. In fact, so-called “outsiders” share a remarkable resemblance to each other and share the same traditional small-town values of old Fayette county, so they don’t seem like outsiders at all.

The similarities between residents are many. Two in three people in Peachtree City identify as Christian, and less than 1% of the population identifies as either Jewish, Muslim, or some other faith. Social positioning is oftentimes more about which church you attend than how much money you make, especially considering the relatively comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle of residents. Most folks who choose to live here commute to six-figure salary jobs in Atlanta, a trip taking about an hour. There is a markedly higher percentage of white people than the national average. All of this and it’s no surprise to find out that the private online community page-- where you can share recipes or reflect on God’s hand in a particularly beautiful sunrise-- is called “The Bubble.”

Many other communities also exist within and act as segregated bubbles, defined by clear economic, racial, or linguistic boundaries. To some extent, these communities may spring up naturally when people self-select into familiar, homogenous groups, but as Richard Rothstein’s research in his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America shows, this argument is largely a myth. Across America, the racially explicit government policies of the mid-twentieth century, like the FHA’s racist housing policies, separated white communities from communities of color while creating effects beyond divided neighbors that continue to endure. These effects include worsening segregation in schools and negative health outcomes in communities of color, like Flint, Michigan and Dickson, Tennessee. Such divisions run contrary to the American ideals of equal opportunity and access, and we must take action to reverse the effects of historically discriminatory policies.

First, communities must enact truly reparative social policies that address the discriminatory policies tracing back to the mid-twentieth century. As suggested by Rachel Black and Aleta Sprague in their report Becoming Visible: Race, Economic Security, and Political Voice in Jackson, Mississippi, these efforts must not simply tinker at the margins of a system built on racial exclusion and oppression, only to be disguised later by a veneer of race-neutrality. Rather, we must pursue “a new approach to making social policy based on our oldest beliefs about democracy and opportunity that truly affirms the equal humanity and dignity of all people.”

Second, the speed at which we achieve truly reparative and inclusive social policies according to the above framework depends on a community’s willingness to recognize its own origins in discriminatory policies. Recognizing these origins is a more difficult step that requires changing hearts and minds so that people understand why reparative social policies are both important and relevant to their communities. In other words, the political landscape of a community must change. Larissa MacFarquar’s recent work on the decision of individuals to stay, leave, or return to a hometown and how countless such decisions influence the landscape of American politics may provide a clue bringing us closer to an answer. Her observations suggest that a critical piece leading to the political transformation of an American community occurs when an individual chooses to return home, typically with a broadened worldview, and introduces new ideas to their peers who chose to stay. Returners are particularly successful because they look and act like family and friends back home. By using language and arguments centered on shared values, these returners can introduce new conceptions of community that will resonate with the people who never left, making it more likely that reparative social policies will ultimately be accepted.

As such, meaningful change may depend, in part, on millennials who tend to support socially progressive ideas returning to hometowns built on racially motivated and discriminatory policies. For many young people like me who have left their childhood homes for bigger cities with visions of changing the world for the better, the thought of returning home can seem like taking a step or three backwards. Indeed, the financial and lifestyle tradeoffs are real. Still, a decision to return home and stay may actually lead to the most substantive and long-lasting change within a community. Thus, as the Peachtree City motto encourages, having a “Plan to Stay” in a hometown, even after a few years outside, might not be such a bad plan after all. Regardless of where you end up, maintaining close contact with friends and loved ones back home can help sow the seeds for positive change, one hometown at a time.

Author:

Dillon Roseen is a Millennial Public Policy Fellow in New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative. Roseen, from Peachtree City, Ga., was a Fulbright Scholar in Amsterdam where he conducted research on the intersection of law, politics, and international security.