The hammers have stopped swinging in Decatur, Ga., and the city’s white middle class hegemons have returned to their McMansions. Another municipal Martin Luther King Service Project has concluded and the back-slapping congratulations have begun. “The 13th annual MLK Service Project is the most ambitious yet,” blogger Dan Whisenhunt wrote. The annual spectacle attracted hundreds of volunteers who made repairs to 31 low-income homes in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood.
I never bought the local party line that the annual project was done to help elderly African American homeowners. That it was an opportunity for Decaturites to do good for their neighbors.
I have a more pessimistic view of Decatur’s annual MLK effort that derives from more than three years of documentary research and interviews with the city’s residents. One of the first folks with whom I spoke back in 2012 said that the MLK project was simply charity and that it failed to give him and his neighbors what they wanted most: social and economic equity in the community. Another said it was Decatur’s gentrifiers acting out of “white guilt.”
Other residents have made similar statements in local blogs and on community email lists. One Oakhurst resident described the city’s MLK project as a “sop” and as a way for residents to make themselves feel better about themselves.
I see Decatur’s annual MLK project as palliative racism: an exercise that allows city officials and residents to make their elderly neighbors comfortable in their last years so that once they die or move away from Decatur the small homes where the elderly live can be upgraded and cycled to a new middle class — almost assuredly white — family who will be an asset — not a burden — to the community.
The term “palliative racism” came to me in the spring of 2012 after I discussed the city’s teardown epidemic and the impacts mansionization and gentrification were having on Decatur’s elderly residents with Assistant City Manager Lyn Menne. After I laid out my concerns to her she said, “They’re just going to die.” After that happens, there’s nothing the City can do about their properties.
According to the Decatur’s MLK service project website, the annual event began as a way to “alleviate the economic pressures on our community’s elderly and thereby enable at-risk seniors to remain in their homes safely and comfortably, improving their quality of life.”
And what is the definition of “palliative care“? Providing “patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, and stress of a serious illness …The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.”
Ironically, Decatur’s MLK service project was begun by the now-defunct Decatur Preservation Alliance, an organization that initially concerned itself with historic preservation. A careful read of local blogs and community email lists reinforces the irony. Many of the MLK project’s most vocal supporters and active cheerleaders also are among Decatur’s most strident opponents to changes in land use regulation that would provide more than superficial and cosmetic treatment to the city’s affordable housing and social equity ills. And, they passionately hate historic preservation.
Palliative racism in Decatur is an annual opportunity for self-gratification that, contrary to the city’s imagineering, does little to honor Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. No, it’s simply municipal bread and circuses — spectacle without substance.