Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.
— T.S. Eliot
In the menagerie of Birmingham politics for most of the 20th century and thus far in the current one, the white liberal is among the least populous of animals, and certainly is the flightiest. Though never numerous enough to be a force unto themselves — at the peak of their influence, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they might have accounted for as much as 10 or 12 percent of the voting populace — white liberals as a bloc have exerted substantial impact on the outcomes of several key elections since Birmingham adopted its mayor-council governmental structure in 1963.
In 1975, the liberals joined with the city’s growing number of black voters to elect one of their own, David Vann, as mayor. Four years later, with Vann shadowed by his handling of a police killing, both groups moved their allegiance to Richard Arrington Jr., and the turnout in neighborhoods like Forest Park and Highland Park and Glen Iris helped provide the thin margin of victory — 2,000 votes out of nearly 88,000 cast — that made Arrington Birmingham’s first black mayor.
By the time Arrington left City Hall in 1999, the sheer number of white liberals had continued to decline. Even more importantly, many of those left shared two feelings: First, that it was past time for Arrington to go; and second, that William Bell, long presumed as the heir apparent to the mayor’s office, had in 20 years on the Birmingham City Council accumulated some political baggage that made his presumptive succession less than ideal. Ultimately, Bernard Kincaid reaped the benefit of that white liberal unease, pulling off a huge upset of Bell by fewer than 1,100 votes, thanks in no small part to moderate-to-heavy support in most majority-white boxes on the Southside.
All of that background is prelude to the following observation: William Bell is a smart man. Having finally claimed the mayor’s office in 2009, and won his first full term just last summer, Bell seems a lot like a man who is planning to run for re-election in 2017. And why not?, one might reasonably ask: Good Things are happening in Birmingham — particularly if one does not hear or else chooses to ignore the voice of skepticism that whispers into the ear of every good citizen once or twice a day, and which rises like a Greek chorus beneath the orchestrated declamations of Birmingham’s ascendancy.
We have the best new baseball park in America! (Yes, but its construction went $6 million over budget.) We have Railroad Park! (Which has had extremely slow going in its efforts to raise funds that will sustain it for the long term.) Construction is underway on Line Park! (Yes, several months later than anticipated due to a dispute over who would be responsible for maintenance of a $3 million park the Birmingham Rotary was presenting the city as a gift.)
What do these things have in common? For one thing, in each instance, Mayor Bell’s office either reneged on (or is alleged privately to have reneged on) assurances of support, leaving eager private-sector partners in the lurch. But for another thing, those projects and other indicators of Birmingham’s hard-won civic “coolness” (think bike lanes) are part and parcel of what I view as a very astute political move by the mayor: the courting of white liberals.
Not that there is the first thing wrong with bike lanes. I think they’re a critical component in a comprehensive urban transportation plan that aims to lessen dependence on fossil fuels in general and automobiles in particular. Nor would I condemn Mayor Bell, who in addition to being smart is also a man of great political skills, for pandering to voters who could assure his continued electoral success; faulting a politician for acting in his own political interest is like faulting a newborn baby for crying in the night.
No, my concern here is for the white liberal. I am concerned that too many of us are too easily wooed by the mayor’s blandishments, too easily distracted by the glitzy baubles being handed us by the left hand of City Hall while the right hand goes undetected about business as usual, mortgaging the future in favor of the present. Without imposing any declarative judgment of Mayor Bell — who has nearly three-and-a-half years left on his current term, and on whom the jury is still out — I am comfortable in maintaining that smart does not necessarily equal wise or prudent, and being a good politician does not necessarily make one a good mayor. I’m afraid that we’re blind to the difference.
I’m afraid, too, that we’re distracted by our own near-desperate desire to see good things happen in our city. But, being human, we tend to define “good things” in terms of our own preferences — and, not to use too inflammatory a word here, our own prejudices. We see things that fit our definition of good, and equate those things too readily with the greater good in a city that is 72 percent black and 30 percent poor — even when some of them might not be, at least in terms of priority.
For me — as, it seems, for most white liberals, and I daresay for many other citizens as well — the feeling that Birmingham is on the verge of claiming its birthright is so palpable at times that it can, I am unashamed to say, bring me to tears. But so can the certainty that our city is not doing all it can to be all it can, and that there is so much waste in our city government and so many human needs that aren’t being met.
And isn’t that supposed be the core of liberalism, the belief in a governmental role in meeting basic human needs? Despite evidence of it scattered through the pages of Birmingham’s history, we don’t know our own power — to demand more of city government, to be watchdogs of the public trust, to express ourselves at the ballot box, to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of opportunities that benefit the community as a whole. Only through such action, and with a shared idea of priority and purpose, can we join with our fellow citizens to effectively address the issues that have bedeviled Birmingham forever — and that will bedevil generations yet to come if we prove to lack the courage of our convictions.