Never will I forget that winter night in January of 2008. I was relaxing in Forsyth County, Georgia, where I was living at the time, watching a youngish Black senator from Illinois deliver a blazing victory speech after winning Iowa’s Democratic presidential caucus. Barack Obama was on his way to becoming the first Black president, on a campaign message of hope and change. I was in Forsyth to observe a different set of American hopes—to do anthropological ethnography, or what some people call immersive journalism, or what others call just “deep hanging out,” for a book that I was writing on whiteness in America.
I’d chosen to peek into Forsyth as a Southern example of what I call a “Whitopia.” A Whitopia is a suburban or exurban county that is at least 85 percent non-Hispanic white, with population growth of at least 6 percent since 2000, and with the majority of that growth, 80-plus percent, coming from non-Hispanic whites. Living in Forsyth for four months, I wanted to see what makes a Whitopia tick.
At the time, I went days on end in monochrome Forsyth—a red county in a deeply red state—without spotting a single person of color. In those years, many Black people I met in greater Atlanta refused to set foot in the county. When I got my Afro cut at Big Papa’s Barbershop in neighboring Cobb County, the barber let out a hearty laugh when I confided that I was living in Forsyth. “Whew-ee!” he said. “Ain’t too many sisters there. Forsyth is white and want it that way.”
No one expected the future we all got. Obama’s tenure as the first Black president would inflame the country’s partisan politics to this day. And in 2020, Georgia would surprise the rest of the nation by turning blue in the presidential election and by holding the future of the U.S. Senate in its hands.
Forsyth County finds itself central to national events. It is a particular place at a particular juncture in America’s political fracture. It doesn’t necessarily represent what’s happening across the nation’s other exurbs. But the county can tell us a lot about the recent presidential election, Southern political realignment, multiracial organizing, the impending Senate runoff—and whether this country can soon have a “blue” South.
I’ve been back to Forsyth County twice in the past two years, to see what’s become of it socially and politically. Getting there is the same as it was before—drive an hour north of Atlanta, a handful of exits past its racially diverse, old guard suburbs. In Forsyth, you can cajole a reservation to practice your golf drive at the Polo Golf & Country Club, not far from the Polo Fields, then pop over to Branchwater for grilled lobster tails with horseradish butter.
Parts of the county seem no different from outer-edge Dallas or Phoenix, complete with Wi-Fi-ready coffeehouses, bottleneck traffic, and a flotilla of SUVs departing subdivision gates just after dawn. And yet parts of the county feature sublime rolling woodlands and horse pastures, where mom-and-pop lunch counters offer you fried okra enchanting your tongue, and a white-haired lady might greet you with a hug—Hello, shougah. The north bits are as rural-country Georgia as it gets.
Forsyth County is 78 percent non-Hispanic white, compared with 91 percent when I first arrived. The surrounding metro Atlanta region is now roughly 52 percent white. The county’s tableau of high-skilled professionals makes it the highest-earning county in the state: Its median household income, $101,743 per year, is almost double the nation’s and the state’s. But if you look more closely—in the strip malls on connector mini-highways, in the day-jobs lots, in rural hamlets—you can also discover residents living in abject poverty, working sore-back jobs and eating hand to mouth.
Behind the county’s 5G, techno-hub, café latte façade, though, the history of racial terror is palpable. Forsyth County is a former sundown county, and a place where unmarked slave graves were literally plowed over to make way for developers to build gated communities not so long ago.
The Daily Caller, the media website founded by Tucker Carlson, ranked Forsyth County the second-most conservative-friendly county in America in 2010. Republicans see Forsyth as an integral conservative bastion to offset Democratic turnout in surrounding counties, like Fulton, DeKalb, and Gwinnett. Recently, Florida Sen. Rick Scott joined Georgia Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue for a campaign rally at the county’s Black Diamond Grill, leading up to the Senate runoff against Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff on Tuesday, Jan. 5.
Melissa Clink, 35 years old, who works at a nonprofit focused on empowering girls, is chairperson of the Forsyth County Democrats. She recounts that when she launched a party Facebook page several years ago, locals trolled the page with vitriol. “There’s definitely a theme of ‘Go back to where you came from. You’re not welcome here. This is our county.’ ”
Eric Cohen, a 42-year-old businessman and the vice chair of the Democratic Party, reports that when his family hoisted a Black Lives Matter flag at their home, neighbors gave them grief on social media.
Especially after this year of racial reckoning, the county’s racial and demographic texture is not lost on Republicans either. “When I’m leading a meeting, and I look out into the group, who do I see?” says Patrick Bell, chairperson of the Forsyth County Republican Party. “I see people that work for Fortune 500 companies. I see blue-collar, I see farmers. I’ve got students. When I close my eyes and look into the group, I’d be lying to you if I told you it was not majority white people. We do have a large Asian contingency that comes to our meetings, whether it be Chinese or Hindi.”
The GOP chair, a 61-year-old entrepreneur who also sells real estate, adds: “Something that I’m probably proudest about when I look out is I’ve got a guy whose $20 contribution means more to him financially than the $2,500 contribution means to the businessman who gives. And he’s in blue jeans, T-shirt, hat, and boots, and works his blue-collar job hard every day, six days a week.”
Data for Progress, a progressive think tank and polling firm whose clients have included President-elect Joe Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, polled voter attitudes across the nation leading up to and during the November election. With my research collaboration, Data for Progress then tracked respondents who live in Whitopian counties by ZIP code. The survey found that polarization in political beliefs is widening among white people nationally—except in Whitopias. From the data, we see that Whitopia residents hold similar views to white Republicans generally. But in Whitopia, viewpoints between “college” and “non-college” respondents track closely, suggesting that when you live in a Whitopia, it often matters more who’s around you, less your education level. Whites in these monoculture areas, no matter their education level, appear less persuadable to Democrats than whites in diversifying or multicultural areas. In Georgia, Democrats made headway in attracting college-educated white voters in cities and diversifying suburbs, but proportionately less in Whitopian counties like Forsyth.
And yet: Trump carried Forsyth with 66 percent of the vote this year, compared with 72 percent in 2016. That shift can be attributed to an influx of new residents who are skewing more Democratic, paired with moderate Republicans unwilling to vote for Trump, according to internal data collected by the county Democratic Party.
“If one is looking at the election results from afar, an outsider would go, ‘Well, this is a heavily Republican county,’ ” says Cohen. “But what they need to do is look beneath the surface. Biden increased Democrats’ share of the county vote compared to 2016 by how he ran his campaign deftly appealing to suburban independents, how local activists energized our voters, how the pandemic and dissatisfaction with Trump drove up turnout, and how the county’s demographics are changing.”
Clink adds, “I think one of the things that was really important for us this year was that Democrats ran five state House candidates for the first time in history. Every Republican in the Georgia House had a challenger this year, for the first time ever. So there were a lot of people who were able to vote for a Democratic candidate who have never had that option before. And by a lot of people, I mean thousands.”
Both Clink and Cohen say that Trump’s autocratic tendencies and his dismissal of data and expertise motivated them and their party members to vote—alongside solidarity for racial justice and support for the Affordable Care Act. Clink, who has an autoimmune disorder, says she is especially motivated by preserving the law, more likely under a Democratic Senate.
“The ACA has literally saved my life—twice now,” Clink said. “For most of my adult life I didn’t have access to affordable health care.”
In their political organizing, the county’s Democratic leaders point to the recent race for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, which includes parts of Forsyth and Gwinnett counties.
Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, a public policy professor and state budget official, ran against Rich McCormick, a Republican not easy to pigeonhole. An ex-Marine and current emergency room doctor who treats COVID patients, McCormick received Trump’s direct, enthusiastic endorsement. Having grown up the son of a secretary, and having attended Morehouse School of Medicine as the scarce white student, McCormick says that he helped found a nonpartisan group alongside a friend, “a left-leaning moderate Black youth minister,” who teaches with him at their church. McCormick helped launch Let’s Talk so that “Blacks and whites could get together, but primarily for Black people to get together and express their concerns about government and about discrimination. And it looks like Black Lives Matter, but not so politicized.” Meanwhile, he also campaigned twice on the Patriots’ Soapbox News Network, a nonstop mouthpiece of QAnon conspiracy. Bourdeaux, by contrast, won on her message demanding informed policymaking, particularly on health care access, COVID response, and public education.
The competition for the open congressional seat was one of the most competitive races in metro Atlanta, and one of the most-watched congressional races in the country. It was that rare instance when a Democrat flipped a House seat this year.
The demographics that drove Bourdeaux’s victory may help the Warnock and Ossoff campaigns. Over the past decade, Georgia’s population increased by 10 percent, following an 18 percent increase the prior decade. This surge includes a “new American majority,” a term adopted commonly by scholars, labor unions, and strategists. The “new American majority” includes Georgia residents who are 18 to 29 years old, unmarried women, and/or people of color. That “new American majority” is said to make up 53 percent of the state’s total registered voters.
This arrival of new and different residents to Atlanta and surrounding counties changed how progressives saw their political prospects and themselves. “When you think of what it means to ‘come out’ as a Democrat in Forsyth, the narrative has shifted,” says Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan effort to register and civically engage Georgians. “The culture has shifted in the way that county Democrats talk about themselves. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this plays out. But I think it’s going to contribute to sustained energy and elevated turnout for both Senate races.”
“In Forsyth County,” she adds, “our work is less about fighting voter suppression and more about organizing for multiracial, multiethnic community—moms, people who are new to the county.” Strategists talk about the gospel-choir theory of organizing: the idea that you have sopranos and altos who hold out the note for so long and that another voice will pick up the piece and contribute her part.
Long-term demographic shifts are politically realigning Georgia and other Southern states, but in the near term, races also depend on which existing Georgians show up and whose votes get counted. “We have been making the argument for quite some time that Georgia is America’s newest battleground state,” says Ufot, who is a 40-year-old millennial. And the New Georgia Project is innovating the use of digital technology in how it engages and turns out voters.
“Leading up to the January runoff, we registered nearly half a million Black and brown voters, and young people, in all 159 of Georgia’s counties. We have become intimately familiar with how each of the counties runs their election, how people’s voter registration forms are collected and processed, how ballots are counted—that is our work in this moment.”
The New Georgia Project, which was co-founded by Stacey Abrams, trains its organizers that they have twice as many ears as they do a mouth—to listen twice as much as they talk. And Black rural Georgians have been telling project workers during the campaign their hopes and concerns for their families and communities.
In turn, Ufot reveals, “I think we’re going to talk to these voters about power—the idea that rural Black voters literally have the power to shape the partisan balance of the United States Senate. Rural Black voters literally have an opportunity to deliver a sort of a governing trifecta, if you will, to the incoming Biden administration. So, I’ll tell you this: That $1,200 stimulus check for these families can stretch over nine months. Georgians want to send someone to Washington to represent their interests and the interests of their families. An important part and parcel of our strategy is connecting with Black rural Georgia.”
What can a Whitopia like Forsyth tell us in the light of election 2020? Are the conservative white voters who bunker in monochrome enclaves going to dig in on their political worldviews? Do those voters become ever more insular? And as the country moves closer to its “white people deadline”— the moment when white people demographically lose majority status—is Trumpism going to stake its last stand in places like Forsyth?
If Trump’s fraudulent claims that Georgia stole his electoral votes are any indication, then Trumpism runs as deeply and intractably as its figurehead. The continued support for an evident loser further reveals the extent to which some white people in very white places are just fine disregarding democracy to preserve their racial, class, and political advantage. Research conducted by the scholar Larry Bartels at Vanderbilt University shows that white concern over the rising political power of immigrants, African Americans, and Latinos eroded white Republicans’ commitment to democracy, especially the rule of law and election outcomes. Most Republicans in the January 2020 survey agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” More than 40 percent agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” This research suggests that harboring hostility toward the nation’s growing ethnic and racial diversity is the single best predictor of respondents’ ambivalence toward democratic principles—not age, education level, religion, or anything else.
Perhaps nowhere is that willingness to disregard democracy more widespread than in Georgia, where even Republican state officials have been rebuked by voters in their party for certifying a fair election. Trump has ample company in his totalitarian conspiracy theory–mongering across the state. His failed efforts to overturn Georgia’s election results are so popular in some majority-white counties that many white voters have vowed to boycott the Senate runoff.
The state’s Republican Party is trying to simultaneously keep voters angry about a supposedly stolen November election while convincing them it’s worth the effort to vote in January. Rich McCormick, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for the 7th Congressional District, is now campaigning robustly for Loeffler and Perdue. “There’s a real concern that Republicans may sit out this election, because they think they’re disenfranchised,” says the campaign surrogate. “And then that’s going to be encouraged by the Democrats. So the question for Republicans is how do you get those people to turn out?”
The encroaching blue on the map makes it clear that Forsyth County can no longer assume it stands apart from the rest of the state. Even if white Trump supporters hunker down in their comfort zone, the other side just demonstrated it only needs a few white voters to change the picture in Georgia.
“We are building a bigger ‘we,’ ” says Ufot of the New Georgia Project. “We center communities of color and young people, but we’re super clear that white progressives are absolutely a part of our coalition that matters. You can win Georgia with 29 percent of the white vote.”
This analysis has support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.