Why open-minded cities reap economic prosperity
The Mayor of Atlanta explains that if your version of America involves keeping "others" out, then you have yet to learn the lessons of the past.
Kasim Reed is the 59th Mayor of the City of Atlanta. He was elected to a second term on November 5, 2013 and took the oath of office on January 6, 2014. Elected with a clear mandate for fiscal reform, Mayor Reed has increased core city services and reduced the City’s spending during the worst recession in 80 years.
Since taking office, he has hired more than 900 police officers and created the largest police force in the city’s history, re-opened all of the city’s recreation centers as safe havens for young people and improved fire-rescue response times. Working with the Atlanta City Council and the city’s employee unions, he successfully initiated a series of sweeping reforms to address the city’s $1.5 billion unfunded pension liability. Mayor Reed began his term facing a $48 million budget shortfall; under his leadership, the city has had four years of balanced budgets with no property tax increases, and its cash reserves have grown from $7.4 million to more than $175 million.
In 2013, he was ranked among the top ten most influential African-Americans in the nation by The Root, a publication of the Washington Post Company. He received the Distinguished Leadership Award from the National Forum for Black Public Administrators. In his book “We Can All Do Better,” former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley cited Reed’s straightforward approach in successfully reforming the city’s pension plan and wrote: “We need more of that kind of candor.”
Mayor Reed is a graduate of Howard University in Washington D.C., where he received his Bachelor of Arts and Juris Doctor degrees and an honorary Doctor of Laws. As an undergraduate member of Howard University's Board of Trustees, he created a fundraising program that has contributed more than $10 million to the school’s endowment since its inception. Mayor Reed was appointed as Howard University's youngest General Trustee in June 2002 and remains a dedicated member of the Board of Trustees.
Kassim Reed: I think that there are few other cities in America that present such a striking example of what happens when a city and a people have a big, bold, and inclusive vision of what they want to become.
If you go back just a few years and look at Birmingham Alabama around the early 1960s and Atlanta, Georgia... Birmingham actually had a bigger, more dynamic economy and really should have gone on to be the center of the economy and the business center in the Southeast because of the steel industry.
But they also had a governor named George Wallace and they have a police chief named Bull Connor.
At about the exact same time, Atlanta had a mayor named Ivan Allen, who testified in favor of the Civil Rights Act, a governor named Carl Sanders, and then later a governor named Jimmy Carter that had a different view of what our city could be and what the South could be.
Without disparaging the City of Birmingham in any way, if you fast forward 40, 50 years later to where we are today, the City of Atlanta and the metropolitan region’s economy is about three times the size of the economy of the City of Birmingham and their metro. And I believe that that is because we had a bigger, bolder, more inclusive vision of what we wanted our city to be.
We had men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and women like Mrs. Juanita Abernathy and Mrs. Coretta Scott King, men like Reverend Joseph Lowery, men like Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, people that set our city on a different path. Men like Robert Woodruff, the CEO of Coca-Cola, who hosted the first integrated dinner in the City of Atlanta to honor Dr. Martin Luther King.
The issues that we face today I don't believe are much different. That's why we have a welcoming initiative in the City of Atlanta to embrace foreign-born citizens and immigrants. We have the second-fastest foreign-born population by percentage on the Eastern seaboard, and we have a level of economic prosperity in our city and our region that is almost unmatched in the Southeastern region of the United States.
And so I think the message is simple: if you have a community that is closed, that is bigoted, that is racist, that tries to present people who should be a part of your community as “other”, in the long-term and the short-term you will pay a very high moral price, but I think you’re paying an even higher economic price.
So right now there is a struggle in America about what vision of our country is the most appropriate. What we have to do is to break through this fever. We are on different ground, but we’re not on entirely new ground. There has always been times in our country where there was a fight for what we wanted the direction of our country to be.
The best version of America is worth it. A big, bold, inclusive vision of America is worth it. But as President John F. Kennedy once said, “Things don’t just happen, things are made to happen.”
So if you believe in that big inclusive version of America, that America where you get to come and be who you are and love who you love and pursue the dreams that you want to achieve and have a fair shot and a fair shake regardless of your ZIP Code or place of birth, you’ve got to get out here and you’ve got to fight for it, because things don’t just happen, things are made to happen.
The city of Atlanta, GA is one of the biggest hubs of jobs and prosperity in the southeastern United States. It's grown considerably over the last 30 years, and the local economy has exploded incrementally if you go back 50 to 60 years. This is largely because Atlanta is a welcoming place to all people—and the Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, will be the first to tell you that. He points to other southern cities that could have been a central hub for business but instead turned people away and kept things segregated. Since America is at somewhat of a crossroads, he says, we only have to look to the past to see the stark differences between being closed off and being open minded.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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