Cook: Chattanooga and the Little White Lie

Cook: Chattanooga and the Little White Lie

April 14th, 2019 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

The Chattanooga riverfront is shown from the North Shore. / Photo from the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau

Photo by Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau

Thursday evening inside a Chattanooga Convention Center ballroom, Mayor Andy Berke will give his sixth State of the City address.

I remember his first speeches. There was a Springsteen vibe in the air, a diverse crowd with populist dreams. It was unlike anything I'd seen in this town.

Then, I stopped going.

In a way, I stopped believing.

Berke's not Santa, and maybe that's the point; when he was first elected, I had such high hopes, perhaps unfairly so.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

I thought Chattanooga would change.

And yes, it has.

Just not the way many of us — perhaps even Berke — thought.

When the mayor speaks Thursday night, his speech will be, as always, well-written. The event will be polished and calculated and 21st-century Gig-influenced.

Berke will probably call individual Chattanoogans by name, as he's done in the past, using personal stories as bridges to a larger message. It's good craft, humanizing and compassionate, reminding us that a city is first and foremost about people.

I hope he mentions recent programs — the anti-hate council, the Smart City initiatives, the response to TennCare purges, the continuous emphasis on early education — he's helped create.

Most of all, I hope the speech will tell the truth.

And won't lie.

Particularly, this one lie.

The Little White Lie.

Since Berke took office, Chattanooga has been riding wave upon wave of attention and investment. Like a new coach inheriting an all-star recruiting class, Berke's predecessors set much into motion, yet Berke has undoubtedly encouraged and facilitated this neo-Chattanooga growth.

The luxury hotels.

The innovation district, South Broad Street and riverfront development.

The Best-City-Ever narrative.

Yet nobody at City Hall seems to acknowledge this is only happening in white Chattanooga.

That's the Little White Lie.

Our downtown success has been mostly white success.

Between 2000 and 2017, the downtown core lost 2,592 black residents.

And gained 5,066 white residents.

Lots of people are moving here; nearly all of them are white. Last year, the Washington Post declared Chattanooga the most racially lopsided city in the U.S. because of our disproportionate white-to-black newcomer ratio.

On a given day, you can go downtown and count more craft brew pubs than black people. Our downtown has been mostly rebranded by white people for white people.

To celebrate the downtown success story is to then, by extension, inadvertently celebrate the loss of blackness in the city.

The Little White Lie ignores all of this. The Little White Lie uncolors our success story, smudging race out of it. ("We're doing great in Chattanooga!" it says, without mentioning who the "we" is.) The Little White Lie celebrates downtown without mentioning race.

Yet race has everything to do with it.

In 2000, the median income for white households in Chattanooga was $37,200.

In 2017, it had jumped to $52,600.

In 2000, the median income for black households in Chattanooga? $23,000.

In 2017, it was less than $28,000.

In Chattanooga, 53 percent of black Chattanoogans earn less than $30,000.

More than 20 percent of white Chattanoogans earn $100,000 or more.

Less than six percent of black Chattanoogans do.

The Gig City and innovation ethos is a mostly white phenomenon. African-Americans in Chattanooga face higher poverty and work more service-sector jobs than white Chattanoogans.

Berke has always spoken out against poverty, yet not in racial ways. The Little White Lie acknowledges there is poverty in Chattanooga, but does not admit that it is mostly African-American poverty ... alongside increasing white wealth.

"Between 2005 and 2015, our city saw one of the greatest declines in African American home ownership in the country," reports Dr. Ken Chilton, author of the report "Negro Removal in Chattanooga," which was released in January.

These numbers aren't fresh news. They are culled from reports published by the NAACP and Chattanooga Organized for Action over the last five years.

Let's be clear: this isn't all City Hall's fault. Other cities experience the same racial crisis.

And that's the point.

The story of high-end development as a trickle-down balm has proved false.

The process of concentrated decision-making has proved inoperative and unjust.

Some $1 billion in tourism. The arrival of VW. Neither has fixed our problems.

Back in 2014, during his State of the City, Berke made a prediction.

"It will only get better," he said.

It did get better.

But only for white Chattanooga.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at or 423-757-6329.

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