Category Archives: Intersections

Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power

330458Kenneth B. Clark ([1967] 1974) Wesleyan University Press

A powerful book that establishes the bar, the place where anyone writing about the ghetto needs to start as they move from the mid-60s when this was written through the ever-deepening horror of the 70s onwards through the crack epidemic and into the present. But most I have read never even come anywhere close to his reach—much less build on his work. I’ve always had doubts about the usefulness of someone coming into a society and spending a little time there and writing about it as an expert…I try to keep something of an open mind on this, but Clark is originally from the Harlem he describes, and that really is where the depth and powerful insight come from in addition to the study and the scholarship, that and the love he has for his home and the people who still live there.

He starts with what it means to grow up in a place like Harlem, to get out, and then to come back. The studies that form the basis of the book were carried out to establish a youth program, a fully federally funded attempt to break the ghetto. Clark is open about his worries about being an ‘involved observer’. His lack of distance. He confesses to the gnawing self-doubts, the pain and rage and desire to escape once again that being back in Harlem raises in him. I love him for this, and so much admiration for his strength in sticking it through, in writing such an incredible book as this, and in being honest about himself as part of this process in a way that helps everyone else who might be going through some of the same things. It does not surprise me that this is the book that I have read best able to see those living in these neighbourhoods as full human beings with all of their bad and their good, their addictions and their violence and their love and their hope. They are never one dimensional, either as victims or victimizers. Agency and structure always and everywhere work together.

The first chapter is simply a collection of quotes and stories from those interviewed about what they feel the ghetto is, what home means to them, what has destroyed their lives, what they look forward to, what they dream…anything and everything that they wished to tell the world. Respect.

The second chapter: The Invisible Wall.

The dark ghetto’s invisible walls have been erected by the white society, by those who have power, both to confine those who have no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The dark ghettoes are social, political, educational, and—above all—economic colonies. Their inhabitants are subject peoples, victims of the greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters (11).

He handily disposes of white liberal rhetoric you still hear today, fifty years after the time of writing:

At times of overt social unrest, many white persons who claim to be in favour of civil rights and assert that they are ‘friends’ of the Negro will admonish the Negro not to engage in disruptive and lawless demonstrations lest he incite racism and reverse the progress made in his behalf. These often well-meaning requests may reflect the unconscious condescension of benign prejudice (16) …Even well-meaning whites continue to see and talk of Negroes as ‘they,’ clearly differentiated from ‘we,’ the ‘outgroup’ from the ‘ingroup.’ As long as this alienation remains, the masses of whites will be irritated and inconvenienced by any meaningful activity by Negroes to change their status. No real revolt can be convenient for the privileged; no real (17) revolt can be contained within comfortable bounds or be made respectable….The Negro cannot be asked to prove that he ‘deserves’ the rights and responsibilities of democracy, nor can he be told that others must be persuaded ‘in heart and mind’ to accept him. Such tests and trials by fire are not applied to others. To impose them on the Negro is racist condescension. It is to assume that the Negro is a special type of human being who must pass a special test before admission to a tenuous status worthy of governmental protection. It is to place upon the Negro a peculiar burden reflecting and exploiting his powerlessness, and it is, paradoxically, to deny him the essential human rights of frailty and imperfection (18).

The Social Dynamics of the Ghetto: ‘The poor are always alienated from normal society, and when the poor are Negro, as they increasingly are in American cities, a double trauma exists’ (21). The meanings of white racism: ‘It is not the sitting next to a Negro at a table or washing at the next basin that is repulsive to a white, but the fact that this implies equal status’ (22) . These he finds true both North and South, just as the truths of Harlem are seen as truths for ghettoes in all American cities. The Blacks interviewed by Clark and his team widely saw a universality of black experience involving discrimination, racism, and severe limitation of opportunity. The exploitation of the black ghetto by whites is a key part of this, where most businesses – from Harlem’s one department store to all but one bank and Savings and Loan right down to the numbers rackets were owned by whites living outside the community. Landlords also, primarily live outside the community even as housing decays and 100 people per acre crowd into dilapidated rooms with high rents. Clark is hardly the first to indicate the severe health as well as social and psychological problems generated by this. But he well understands that ‘If his home is clean and decent and even in some way beautiful, his sense of self is stronger. A house is a concrete symbol of what the person is worth’ (33).

He notes the lack of jobs and high levels of unemployment. The racism within unions and what that means for workers’ movement ‘The white worker has felt much less a proletariat psychologically than his counterpart in Europe because of the existence of a black proletariat in subjugated status beneath him’ (41). That ‘Unions are seen as escalators to management, not just as the protector of the workingclass. The presence of Negroes on the American scene has given some objective support to this belief…’ (42). He outlines the various unions in the area and their racial divisions. He looks at the cycle of familial instability. And intervention? Nails it: ‘patronage is not enough. They must have imagination and daring, and the must assume the risk of demanding real social change’ (54). And this: ‘There is harnessable power to effect profound social change in the generally repressed rage in the alienated’ (54). He looks at Black social mobility, and attempts to escape the ghetto into the middle class.

But though many middle-class residents of the ghetto do have a constant wish for physical and psychological escape, the ghetto has a devouring quality and to leave provokes a curious struggle. Those who do not try feel that those who do try should have some feeling of guilt and a sense of betrayal. They demand allegiance to the pathology of the ghetto, to demand conformity to its norms…That Negroes continue to seek to imitate the patterns of middle-class whites is a compliment, not the threat it may seem, but a compliment in large part undeserved, and the scars inflicted upon Negroes who are constantly confronted by the flight of those they encounter are deep and permanent. The wounded appear to eschew bitterness and hatred, but not far below the often genial, courteous surface lies a contempt that cannot easily be disguised. (62)

He moves from social dynamics – the more structural aspects – to the psychology to the pathology. My principal critique – as always I feel of books of this period – is a feminist one. I am always troubled by sub-headings like ‘The Negro Matriarchy and the Distorted Masculine Image’ and such, but Angela Davis, June Jordan, Patricia Collins and others have written extensively and brilliantly about this. But the examination of violence, delinquency and addiction are very good, and consist in great part of extensive quotations from those interviewed and their own views of their situation. More respect.

The section on school was to me one of the most eye-opening – even though I felt well-versed in this stuff. His study was able to show that kids’ IQ scores actually went down, far down, over the course of their time in school – no more damning indictment of a school system is possible, even with every reservation in the world about IQ testing in general. And few would write this now days:

’The clash of culture in the classroom’ is essentially a class war, a socio-economic and racial warfare being waged on the battleground of our school, with middle-class and middle-class aspiring tecahers provided with a powerful arsenal of half-truths, prejudices, and rationalizatipons, arrayed against hopelessly outclassed workingclass youngsters. This is an uneven balance, particularly since, like most battles, it comes under the guise of righteousness.

And finally a look at power structure in the ghetto, the rise of charismatic leaders like Adam Clayton Powell, the power of the Black press and church, the social services systems. An insight into the reach of the non-violent civil rights movements into the ghetto – which is too say, the non-reach. While all respected M.L. King and groups like CORE, there was not much support for loving the enemy, turning the other cheek. Clark also identifies a key difference between struggle against de jure segregation like Jim Crow and de facto segregation. He writes ‘In the North, the object is the entrenched bastions of political and economic power, and therefore the most effective instrument of change is direct contact with leadership, not sit-ins and other forms of mass protest’ (184). I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion, but it is certainly a point that always required more thought and discussion.
But this I agree with wholeheartedly:

Stagnant ghettoes are a monument to the dominance of forces which tend to perpetuate the status quo and to resist constructive social change. If the ghettoes are to be transformed, then forces superior to those which resist change must be mobilized to counteract them. The problem of change in the ghetto is essentially, therefore, a problem of power—a confrontation and conflict between the power required for change and the power resistant to change. The problem of power is crucial and nuclear to any nonsentimental approach to understanding, planning, and predicting. (199)

He notes about the 1963 March on Washington that arguably resulted in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that:

Of utmost significance is the fact that the term ‘white backlash,’ a popular phrase for intensified white resistance to integration, became a part of the colloquial language within the year immediately following the march (202)

And these words which provide food for much thought:

The problem posed for Negroes and those whites who are committed to actual social change as a reality and not a mere social posture is that of identifying, mobilizing, and using that power necessary to translate laws into meaningful changes in the day-to-day lives of those whom the laws are intended to protect. This problem of power is one of the more difficult ones to resolve positively because masses of white believe that they stand to gain by maintaining the Negro in his present predicament, because some whites and a few Negroes actually do gain economically and politically by maintaining the racial status quo, and because energy must always be mobilized to counteract social inertia (203)

I also thought his attempt to categorize the kinds of strategy most in dealing with racial injustice very interesting – and of course the caveat that groups use multiple strategies, not simply one:

– The strategy of prayer;
– The strategy of isolation (aristocratic and wealthy Blacks isolating themselves from the rest of their community);
– The strategy of accommodation;
– The strategy of despair (‘Despair does not seem properly identified as a strategy and yet, in a real sense, it is; for to abandon hope – to withdraw—in the presence of oppression is to adjust to and accept the condition’ (220));
– The strategy of alienation (advocated by the Communists in the 1930s, with the establishment of a separate black republic, also Black Muslims);
– The strategy of law and maneuver (NAACP and National Urban League)
– The strategy of direct encounter (sit-ins, picket lines)
– The strategy of truth (method of the intellectual)

I’m still thinking through these things, as I am this: ‘Negroes alone cannot abolish the ghetto. It will never be ended as long as the white society believes that it needs it’ (225).

Almost fifty years ago, Kenneth Clark wrote ‘The truth is that every Negro has a racial problem, repressed or otherwise, and that no American social institution is color-blind—to be color-blind in a society where race is relevant is not to be free but insensitive’ (226). How long have we been fighting that?

It is also a key insight since developed by multiple academic volumes that ‘The difference between these crusades [ie struggle to abolish child labor] and race is that in race one’s own status needs [as a white liberal] are at stake. No significant minority of white liberals can work in a totally committeed manner for racial justice for long without coming in conflict with conscious or unconscious anxieties’ (229). And this is still true:

The liberal position, when applied to race, has been, for a multitude of reasons, somewhat tainted. In those areas of life where liberals are powerful—labor unions, schools, and politics—one is forced to say that the plight of the Negroes is not significantly better than it is in areas where liberals are not dominant. Labor unions are not ‘better’ than management (230). … Loren Miller…points out that because the liberal’s historic concern has been with individual rights, he sees progress in the admission of a few Negro children to a hitherto white school; while the Negro, who also wants individual rights, nevertheless regards the raising of status of the group ‘to which he has been consigned’ as his own immediate problem and spurns the evidence of individual progress as mere tokenism (231).

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Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get…

7702697 Your Mama!

What a title, how could any book live up to it? And this doesn’t quite, but it is still full of some righteous humour and anger. Full of history, the fights between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, words of James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Dubois, asides that are tales told by SNCC organisers from the deep South and the people there with all the wisdom of age and the survival of oppression. Not as full of facts, not as conventionally argued as Ture and Hamilton’s Black Power, so perhaps it hits you harder.

It starts with the civil rights movement, the non-violent movement of marches and sit-ins: ‘It was thought then that segregation was a moral issue, therefore a moral weapon – nonviolence, love, satyagraha – would bring the walls of the prison tumbling down’ (4). But it didn’t. I’ve always hated the use of the word ‘backlash’ but not as much as Lester does:

The ‘white backlash’ was nothing new to the black community. They knew all about the backlash, the frontlash, the sidelash and all them other lashes…it simply meant that white folks were a little tired of picking up the papers and seeing niggers all over the front page… The average white person didn’t know what niggers wanted and didn’t much care. By now they should have gotten whatever the hell it was they said they didn’t have, and if they hadn’t gotten it, they either didn’t deserve it or didn’t need it.(16)

And some things never change, like the relationship between law and anyone poor or trying to make any kind of change, but especially peoples of colour, and especially black people:

‘Law and order must prevail’ has become the cliche of the 1960’s and the biggest lie, because the American black man has never known law and order except as an instrument of oppression, and it has prevailed upside his head at every available opportunity. It exists for that purpose. The law has been written by white men and their property, to be enforced by white men against blacks in particular and poor folks in general (23)

It has a great quote from The Saturday Evening Post ‘We Are All Mississipians’:

We are all, let us face it, Mississippians. We all fervently wish that the Negro problem did not exist, or that, if it must exist, it could be ignored. Confronted with the howling need for decent school, jobs, housing, and all the minimum rights of the American system, we will do our best, in a half-hearted way, to correct old wrongs. The hand may be extended grudgingly and patronizingly, but anyone who rejects that hand rejects his own best interests. For minimum rights are the only rights that we are willing to guarantee, and above those minimum rights there is and will continue to be a vast area of discrimination and inequity and unfairness, the areas in which we claim the most basic right of all — the right to be stupid and prejudiced, the right to make mistakes, the right to be less and worse than we pretend, the right to be ourselves. When this majority right is threatened, the majority will react accoridngly — with results that could be disastrous to all of us.

That’s quoted in Black Power by Ture and Hamilton as well, and you can see why. I almost feel that it has to be made up, so sparkling is its honesty in the way it explains almost everything. It’s also exactly everything that whites must most actively abjure. As he writes later:

Black Power is not anti-white people, but it is anti anything and everything that serves to oppress. If whites align themselves on the side of oppression, then Black Power must be antiwhite. That, however, is not the decision of Black Power. (140)

At the end he gets down to economics: ‘The essence of power in America is fantastically simple: money’ (125). Yes it is, Mr. Lester. And this chapter will just fuel that anger that’s been building, but the good, purposeful, in-good-company kind of anger. He quotes Malcom X:

You can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic; you have to have someone else’s blood to suck to be a capitalist. You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a bloodsucker… (131)

And then a familiar philosophy from my organizing days

One of the saving graces of SNCC, in particular, has been its unwillingness to dogmatically align itself with any doctrine… However there is agreement with Malcolm that justice, equality, and freedom are inconsistent with the principles of this country. Capitalism is congenitally unable to allow black men to be free. (132)

That he leaves black women out of this sentence is my principal critique…

Black Power: The Politics of Liberation

211867Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) & Charles V. Hamilton  (1967)

I loved this, I think it should be taught as part of U.S. history wherever such a grim subject is taught (though with some more women talking alongside, my main critique).

From the preface

This book is about why, where and in what manner black people in America must get themselves together. It is about black people taking care of business — the business of and for black people. The stakes are really very simple: if we fail to do this, we face continued subjection to a white society that has no intention of giving up willingly or easily its position of priority and authority. If we succeed, we will exercise control over our lives, politically, economically and psychically. We will also contribute to the development of a viable larger society; in terms of ultimate social benefit, there is nothing unilateral about the movement to free black people (11)

They write ‘we offer no pat formulas in this book for ending racism…our aim is to offer a framework…to ask the right questions, to encourage a new consciousness and to suggest new forms which express it’ (11-12). It’s always about asking the right questions, isn’t it? They situate themselves within a black tradition that has understood protest as the only way to obtain change, quoting Douglass:

Those who profess to favor freedom yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. … Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blow, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress’
–Frederick Douglass, West India Emancipation Speech, August 1957

They also situated themselves internationally as part of the third world, their struggle connected to other liberation struggles.

After Douglass I don’t think you need much more to demolish the various white ineterpretations of white supremacy and the existence of racism, but I suppose it needed some spelling out. In response to Gunnar Myrdal’s book The American Dilemma Ture and Hamilton quote Silberman’s Crisis in Black and White

The tragedy of race relations in the United States is that there is no American Dilemma. White Americans are not torn and tortured by the conflict between their devotion to the American creed and their actual behavior. They are upset by the current state of race relations, to be sure. But what troubles them is not that justice is being denied but that their peace is being shattered and their business interrupted. (21)

Describing the actual situation of black people in America — lack of employment, quality schools, quality housing, the lower life expectancy, regular anti-Black racism and rhetoric and etc — and describing the middle-class as the backbone of institutional racism in the US seeking to preserve good government and homes and schools only for themselves, Ture and Hamilton turn to the civil rights movement

We must face the fact that, in the past, what we have called the movement has not really questioned the middle-class values and institutions in this country. If anything it has accepted those values and institutions without fully realising their racist nature. Reorientation means an emphasis on the dignity of man, not on the sanctity of property. It means the creation of a society where human misery and poverty are repugnant to that society, not an indication of laziness or lack of initiative. The creation of new values means the establishment of a society based, as Killens expresses it in Black Man’s Burden on ‘free people’, not ‘free enterprise’.(

So Black Power:

The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks. By this we mean that group solidarity is necessary before a group van operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society (58). … black people must lead and run their own organizations. Only black people can convey the revolutionary idea — and it is a revolutionary idea — that black people are able to do things for themselves. Only they can help create in the community an aroused and continuing black consciousness that will provide a basis for political strength. In the past, white allies have often furthered white supremacy without the whites involved realizing it, or even wanting to do so (60).

It is a movement that can speak to the ‘growing militancy of young black people in the urban ghettoes and the black-belt South’ rather than the earlier civil rights movement ‘whose tone of voice was adapted to an audience of middle-class whites’ (64). They write

We had only the old language of love and suffering. And in most places — that is, from the liberals and middle class — we got back the old language of patience and progress…For the masses of black people, this language resulted in virtually nothing. in fact, their objective day-to-day condition worsened’ (64-65).

Their goal was also integration, but

‘Integration’ as a goal today speaks to the problem of blackness not only in an unrealistic way but also in a despicable way. It is based on complete acceptance of the fact that in order to have a decent house or education, black people must move into a white neighborhood or send their children to a white school. This reinforces, among both black and white, the idea that ‘white’ is automatically superior and ‘black’ is by definition inferior. For this reason, ‘integration’ is a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy(68)

This drains skills and energies from the ghetto, and asks blacks to deny their identity and heritage, instead ‘the racial and cultural personality of the black community must be preserved and that community must win its freedom while preserving its cultural integrity’ (69).

They have a whole chapter on ‘The Myths of Coalition’
Myth one:

The major mistake made by exponents of teh coalition theiry is that they advocate alliances with groups which have never had as their central goal the necessarily total revamping of the society. At bottom those groups accept the American system and want only — if at all — to make peripheral, marginal reforms in it. Such reforms are inadequate to rid the society of racism.
Here we come back to an important point made in the first chapter: the overriding sense of superiority that pervades white America (73).

the political and economic institutions of this society must be completely revised if the political and economic status of black people is to be improved. We do not see how those same institutions can be utilized — through teh mechanism of coalescing with some of them — to bring about that revision. We do not see how black people can form effective coalitions with groups which are not willing to question and condemn the racist institutions which exploit black people; which do not perceive the need for, and will not work for, basic change. Black people cannot afford to assume that what is good for white American is automatically good for black people (78)

Myth 2 – ‘the assumption that a politically and economically secure group can collaborate with a politically and economically insecure group. (78)

We cannot see, then, how black people, who are massively insecure both politically and economically, can coalesce with those whose position is secure — particularly when the latter’s security is based on the perpetuation of the existing political and economic structure. (87)

Myth 3 – ‘that political coalitions can be sustained on a moral, friendly, or sentimental basis, or on appeals to concience’. What then are grounds for good coalitions?

‘all parties to the coalition must perceive a mutually beneficial goal based on the conception of each party of his own self interest. One party must not blindly assume that what is good for one is automatically good for the other.

there is a clear need for genuine power bases before black people can enter into coalition…Civil rights leaders who … rely essentially on ;national sentiment’…must appeal to the conscience, the good graces of society; they are, as noted earlier, cast in a beggar’s role.

Thus there are 4 preconditions to viable coalitions

a. the recognition by the parties involved of their respective self-interests
b. the mutual belief that each party stands to benefit in terms of self-interest
c. the acceptance of the fact that each party has its own independant base of power and does not depend for its own ultimate decision-making on a force outside itself
d. the realization that the coalition deals with specific and identifiable — as opposed to general and vague — goals. (92)

They go on to tell the story of the awesome Mississippi Freedom Democrats, fighting to create a new kind of politics that is of the people. They writes about the drive to register African-Americans in Lowndes County Alabama where they were a majority. They looks at Tuskegee, the politics of accommodation, and the ‘dynamite of the ghetto’. They write:

It is ludicrous for the society to believe that these temporary measures can long contain the tempers of an oppressed people. And when the dynamite goes off, pious pronouncements of patience should not go forth. Blame should not be placed on ‘outside agitators’ or on ‘Communist influence’ or on advocates of Black Power. That dynamite was placed there by white racism and it was ignited by white racist indifference and unwillingness to act justly. (168)

The dynamite is still there, and this just made me laugh because this is still exactly how downtown machines work and its still just as true: ‘black politicians must stop being representatives of ‘downtown’ machines, whatever the cost might be in terms of lost patronage and holiday handouts(61)’.

Pachucos in LA: Beatrice Griffith’s American Me

Beatrice Griffith American MeBeatrice Griffith’s study of the Mexican ‘colony’ of LA in the 1940s is actually quite an extraordinary book. It’s written by a white and quite liberal woman–and I’m not such a huge fan of white liberals when they are writing about poverty and race. But in spite of the resulting prejudice and stereotyped ‘otherness’ and belief that Americanization is the answer that creeps in from time to time (and there is far less of that than most things I have read, especially from that time), this book manages to transcend a lot of that through its format.

Look at this cover, if only it were the version I read.

I need to look more into it, but what I’ve read so far claims for this a kind of pioneering role in sociology and ethnography in terms of combining typical sociological studies of a community (health, education, labour etc) with what she calls ‘fiction’. I am saddened, but not surprised really, that there is almost nothing on Beatrice Griffith herself to be found on the internet, though there exist a number of reflections on her work. Each topic is fronted with a story, and while she calls them fiction, they are essentially the stories that youth in the community have told her, and much in their own words. And they are rather wonderful. Because she was able to listen to them, there is a much deeper understanding here of racism and exploitation and the realities of things like police brutality and child mortality than I have seen in any white-authored book of the time (or today, sadly).

And the period she is in and studying? The period of the zoot suits (the retelling of the mobs of soldiers and sailors and regular white folks going after kids in drapes is rightfully horrifying, I hadn’t know before quite the extent to which it happened and the complicity of authority up to the mayor’s office). It is the period of pachuquismo, and while she doesn’t quite get it, man those kids can tell stories. I loved loved loved the stories. I loved too, how much of the slang is still around! And curious about some of her explanations, as to whether the slang has changed in meaning or whether she just got it wrong (and sometimes there are some things that I think she spells wrong because she doesn’t know what they mean), but mostly it’s all the same. The barrio names were awesome too, some of them are still around, but a lot of them are gone…

Definitely a great read, some wonderful illustrations (though so sadly no photographs), and the glossary in the back of slang is cool. Some good statistics too, this will definitely give you a great sense of the community in ways that other things can’t given the racism and active erasing that has been such an integral part of defining California and Los Angeles.

Freund’s Colored Property

Colored PropertyColored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America starts with a simple question about white people in Detroit within a concrete period: the time between the formation of two distinct white mobs coming together around the prospect of sharing their neighbohood with a stranger of colour – the first in 1925 (the infamous Sweet case on Garland street) and the second in 1963 on Kendal Street.

In short, we know that between the 1920s and 1960s both the geographical and intellectual settings for white homeowner vigilantism had clearly changed. The mob that descended upon Kendal Street represented a new generation of white resistance to racial integration–ethnically more inclusive, predominantly home-owning and suburban. And postwar whites organized to maintain the color line at a time when it was impolitic, at best, to announce one’s racism out loud. Nonetheless, the similarities between the Garland and Kendal Street episodes, and the apparent continuity of white hostility to integrated neighborhoods, raise a fundamental question that this study seeks to answer: If most northern whites had disavowed racism and supported the principle of racial equality, why did so many continue to oppose residential integration? What motivated postwar whites to exclude black people from their neighborhoods? [5]

So it looks at the articulation of changing ideas of race and changing patterns of property ownership and the private and public policies that shaped these.

Most commentators treat white racism as something unchanging and as conceptually separable from other variables that fuel conflict between groups (including racial groups). Scholars generally portray white racism as a static, though ill-defined, sentiment, an irrational and misguided antipathy toward nonwhites. … Largely missing from this important scholarship is an investigation of how whites’ racial thinking itself changed during the years that the United States became a predominantly suburban and home-owning nation. Like many studies of the postwar metropolis, this book argues that race did matter- that whites’ racial views and preferences continued to shape struggles over housing and neighborhoods in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. But unlike most studies, it argues that whites’ ideas about race were undergoing a fundamental transformation during these years. It explores an important facet of that transformation, by showing how whites grew deeply invested in new ideas about the relationship between race and property. And it argues that this new racial thinking was decisively shaped by the powerful new institutions and private practices that fueled postwar suburban growth while also successfully excluding most black people from its benefits. Rather than describe how other variables interacted with a presumably static white racism, I argue that white identity and white racism were being remade and that these changes were inextricably linked to a revolution in metropolitan political economy.

It’s quite an interesting, and exceedingly pursuasive argument about racial formation

As whites abandoned theories about biological difference and hierarchy, they embraced the argument that racial minorities simply threatened white-owned property. This shift occurred as a majority of whites became property owners for the first time, and as the politics that facilitated this process encouraged whites to view property and property ownership through a powerful but distorted racial lens. New ideas about race were largely born in and sustained by the politics of metropolitan change itself. [12]

This revolution in the metropolitan political economy is extensively documented here:

the huge influence of the real estate industry and the open racism of early theories about zoning

The most enduring legacy of developers’ involvement was zoning’s new focus on protecting the value of residential property. Originally framed as a panacea for a wide range of practical urban problems, by the mid- l910s zoning was portrayed in NCCP sessions primarily as a tool for shoring up real estate markets, especially for “high class” residential subdivisions.

– the community builders and huge expansion of the suburbs incorporating racial covenants and discriminatory zoning — there is not so much on covenants but

Most studies treat zoning ordinances and racially restrictive covenants as discrete if sometimes complementary legal instruments of exclusion because zoning law addresses the right of public bodies to regulate the uses of privately owned property, whereas covenant law addresses the right of private persons to regulate uses of their own property. Zoning ordinances established and defined public powers, while covenants governed interactions between private individuals.86
Largely unexamined, as a result, are the ways that zoning and racial covenants shared an intellectual, cultural, and even legal provenance, a shared history documented by the courts’ defense of both. [92]

-the rise in local incorporation of suburbs in order to implement restrictive zoning
-the various government programs which transformed the property market while promoting the myth that they were doing nothing of the kind…Freund argues that broadly speaking, the federal government intervened in three ways

1. ‘federal initiatives and policies fueled the resegregation of the nation’s metropolitan regions by race and by wealth.’

2. ‘state interventions helped popularize a new rationale for the exclusion of minorities from the fast-growing suburbs. Through its involvement in both zoning and mortgage politics, the federal government put considerable force behind the theory that racial segregation was driven not by white racism but by economic necessity, that exclusion was a “market imperative,” required solely by the principles of land-use science. This argument was not new to the postwar era. But federal involvement made it constitutive of a new metropolitan political economy’

3. ‘federal interventions were instrumental in popularizing a powerful and quite paradoxical myth: that neither suburban growth nor new patterns of racial inequality owed anything to the state’s efforts. The federal government insisted that the new metropolitan order was a product of unregulated free-market activity. [33]’

What I found most interesting (and struggled the most with as well, as I can’t quite get my head around the mortgage stuff)

Still most commentators understate the extent of federal subsidy and the depth of the federal role in shaping the private market for housing, because they focus almost exclusively on FHA and VA operations and because they do not examine how selective credit policy transformed the way that wealth in housing is generated in the modern United States. The FHA and VA worked in tandem with other powerful programs that subsidized and regulated the conventional mortgage market (for home loans not covered by FHA or VA insurance) and virtually created a secondary mortgage market (enabling investors to trade home finance debt like other securities). Taken together, this broad range of federal initiatives did more than shore up a struggling market for housing finance. It created a new kind of mortgage market and a new kind of mortgage industry, which together issued more credit, and thus produced far more wealth than their predecessors. These chapters situate federal mortgage policy within a much larger revolution in U.S. money and credit markets, demonstrating that postwar suburbanization was part and parcel of a fundamental transformation in the mechanics of American capitalism.

And so, to recap in terms of how this affected people of colour in the U.S.

Because the programs that subsidized the mortgage market systematically excluded racial minorities, suburban growth and its corollary prosperity were not just state-managed but also inherently discriminatory. Federal housing policies did not merely “embrace … the discriminatory attitudes of the marketplace,” as the FHA’s critics have long argued. Selective credit operations created a new kind of discriminatory marketplace.52

This structural transformation was accompanied by a change in national housing politics, an ideological change of equal importance. State involvement in the private housing sector helped popularize a mythical story about the mortgage revolution and suburban racial exclusion. Supporters of federal intervention insisted that market forces alone were spurring suburban growth and that it was these same impersonal forces that required the exclusion of minorities.

There follows the case studies on Detroit neighborhoods, which certainly bear out the theory above.

If I have any critique of Colored Property, it’s that I think with some editing it could have lost a lot of the bulk that made it so much work to get through. It felt like a number of things were repeated or overly detailed, which might explain why it doesn’t seem to be seen as the pivotal book I really think it is in terms of connecting the formation of ideas of race with the development of property markets and the geographical consolidation of homes and wealth in the U.S.

What is largely missing from this story though? The struggle of African Americans to escape the Black belt, to get access to resources, to fight discrimination, to face black mobs, to build their own houses, realty organisations, banks…

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The New Jim Crow

10802160Michelle Alexander (2012) The New Press

This book is remarkable not so much for its content — while that is impressive, it draws from the work of so many others who have been fighting the prison system and the criminalization of our youth for a long time. There is little that is new here. What is new (at least I think it’s new but I could be wrong as this is not entirely my subject) is the way that it is all brought together with devastating impact through the overarching argument that mass incarceration represents a new system of racial control and exploitation, the third in a series that began with slavery and continued with Jim Crow:

Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service-are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. [5]

In terms of thinking through the meaning of racial caste

I use the term racial caste in this book the way it is used in common parlance to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration.

It may be helpful, in attempting to understand the basic nature of the new caste system, to think of the criminal justice system–the entire collection of institutions and practices that comprise it–not as an independent system but rather as a gateway into a much larger system of racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization. This larger system, referred to here as mass incarceration, is a system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls–walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws… [12]

This is a system well served by a few people of colour in high positions: ‘the current system of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it’ and does not require overt white racism: ‘racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago’ (14). Of course, the history of the U.S. has made it obvious that you can always count on indifference, with plenty of hostility and overt bigotry.

It begins with America’s beginnings: ‘Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery–as well as the extermination of American Indians–with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the colonies’ [23]. Here in American many prefer to forget such beginnings, or that ‘The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system–slavery–while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites’ (25).

Then came the long struggle for abolition, the civil war, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Increasingly the rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was mobilised against the Civil Rights movement battling to dismantle Jim Crow:

Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive “lenience” toward lawlessness, thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then- vice president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.”37 (41)

This would become a new building block:

As Weaver notes, “rather than fading, the segregationists’ crime-race argument was reframed, with a slightly different veneer,” and eventually became the foundation of the conservative agenda on crime.48 In fact, law and order rhetoric-first employed by segregationists-would eventually contribute to a major realignment of political parties in the United States. [43]

And drawing on the work of the Edsalls

Race had become, yet again, a powerful wedge, breaking up what had been a solid liberal coalition based on economic interests of the poor and the working and lower-middle classes. In the 1968 election, race eclipsed class as the organizing principle of American politics, and by 1972, attitudes on racial issues rather than socioeconomic status were the primary determinant of voters’ political self-identification. The late 1960s and early 1970s marked the dramatic erosion in the belief among working-class whites that the condition of the poor, or those who fail to prosper, was the result of a faulty economic system that needed to be challenged.

And this is where a lot of the stuff I knew but didn’t know came in – the war on drugs. I knew it was terrible, but had no idea just where it had sprung from, how it had come about, and really I didn’t understand just what a new kind of terrible it really was in the inner-cities of this country – having grown up on the border and worked with refugees I connected it always more with the new militarization of the border and post cold-war conflicts in Mexico and Central and South America. I thought poor neighbourhoods had always been that controlled and screwed over by police, not realising that the levels and extent of it were something new (because poor people, especially people of colour, have of course, always been screwed over by police). I’m not even that young, but this is part of the generation gap I suppose. Alexander writes

In October 1982, President Reagan officially announced his administration’s war on Drugs. At the time he declared this new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation .72 This fact was no deterrent to Reagan, for the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race. By waging a war on drug users and dealers, Reagan made good on his promise to crack down on the racially defined “others”–the undeserving (49).

I knew the general numbers of incarcerations, but had never connected these to the war on drugs per se

Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. 1 Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41 , 100 in 1980-an increase of 1, 100 percent.2 Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began.3

The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service, or probation) has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen. In two short decades, between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans-or one in every 31 adults-were behind bars, on probation, or on parole. 7 [60]

Nevertheless, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men. 19 The racial bias inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men .2 For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control-such as probation or parole.21 These gross racial disparities simply cannot be explained by rates of illegal drug activity among African Americans. [100]

Again, I knew police in practice mostly did what they wanted to do, but I didn’t realise how statutorily powerful the police are in this war, and how far protections against racism and bias have been eroded. This was both terrifying and infuriating and elicits despair of any change. How can this be possible:

First, consider sentencing. In 1987, when media hysteria regarding black drug crime was at fever pitch and the evening news was saturated with images of black criminals shackled in courtrooms, the Supreme Court ruled in McCleskey v. Kemp that racial bias in sentencing, even if shown through credible statistical evidence, could not be challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment in the absence of clear evidence of conscious, discriminatory intent. [109]

The combination of recent case law has ensured that ‘The Supreme Court has now closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing. The system of mass incarceration is now, for all practical purposes, thoroughly immunized from claims of racial bias’ (139).

This when evidence shows that whites more than any other race are more likely to use and sell drugs. So why the focus on the ghetto? Partly because of the political pay-off against a population far less powerful and spatially removed

The enduring racial isolation of the ghetto poor has made them uniquely vulnerable in the War on Drugs. What happens to them does not directly affect-and is scarcely noticed by-the privileged beyond the ghetto’s invisible walls. Thus it is here, in the poverty-stricken. racially segregated ghettos, where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factories have disappeared, that the drug war has been waged with the greatest ferocity. [124]

Though more academic explanations have been in the foreground

Numerous scholars (and many law enforcement officials) attempt to justify the concentration of drug law enforcement resources in ghetto communities on the grounds that it is easier for the police to combat illegal drug activity there. The theory is that black and Latino drug users are more likely than white users to obtain illegal drugs in public spaces that are visible to the police, and therefore it is more efficient and convenient for the police to concentrate their efforts on open-air drug markets in ghetto communities. Sociologists have been major proponents of this line of reasoning, pointing out that differential access to private space influences the likelihood that criminal behavior will be detected. Because poor people lack access to private space (often sharing small apartments with numerous family members…[125]

Thus

Today, the War on Drugs has given birth to a system of mass incarceration that governs not just a small fraction of a racial or ethnic minority but entire communities of color. In ghetto communities, nearly everyone is either directly or indirectly subject to the new caste system. The system serves to redefine the terms of the relationship of poor people of color and their communities to mainstream, white society, ensuring their subordinate and marginal status. [188]

It redefines this relationship through a new kind of racial segregation, locking up vast populations behind bars, but Alexander argues that more important is its symbolic production of race:

Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen ). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black. [197]

the conflation of blackness with crime did not happen organically; rather, it was constructed by political and media elites as part of the broad project known as the War on Drugs. This conflation served to provide a legitimate outlet to the expression of antiblack resentment and animus–a convenient release valve now that explicit forms of racial bias are strictly condemned. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer permissible to hate blacks, but we can hate criminals. Indeed, we are encouraged to do so (199).

Then, drawing on the work of French Sociologist Loic Wacquant, Alexander frames the economic argument behind today’s mass incarceration

By 1984, however, the black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled, while the white rate had increased only marginally. 85 This was not due to a major change in black values, behavior, or culture; this dramatic shift was the result of deindustrialization , globalization, and technological advancement Urban factories shut down as our nation transitioned to a service economy. Suddenly African Americans were trapped in jobless ghettos, desperate for work. [218]

Desperate for work in a society outsourcing work, thus become superfluous, and leading to Wacquant’s argument that

the one thing that makes the current penal apparatus strikingly different from previous racial caste systems is that “it does not carry out the positive economic mission of recruitment and disciplining of the workforce.”86 Instead it serves only to warehouse poor black and brown people for increasingly lengthy periods of time, often until old age. The new system does not seek primarily to benefit unfairly from black labor, as earlier caste systems have, but instead views African Americans as largely irrelevant and unnecessary to the newly structured economy-an economy that is no longer driven by unskilled labor. [219]

And so finally we reach the final arguments – the failure of today’s civil rights movement to deal with the real issues at stake. Partially because of the return to legal strategies the movement took after the movements of the 60s, while ‘Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve–i.e. problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem’ (227). But more importantly because of long-standing strategies for overcoming discrimination:

Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation–when black men were more likely to be lynched than to receive a fair trial in the South—NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of blacks accused crimes unless the lawyers were convinced of the men’s innocence.6 (226)

Since the days when abolitionists struggled to eradicate slavery, racial justice advocates have gone to great lengths to identify black people who defy racial stereotypes, and they have exercised considerable message discipline, telling only those stories of racial injustice that will evoke sympathy among whites. [227]

Yet these are the realities of our society – ‘While many black people get stopped and searched for crimes they did not commit, it is not so easy these days to find young black men in urban areas who have never been convicted of a crime. The new caste system labels black and brown men as criminals early, often in their teens, making them “damaged goods” from the perspective of traditional civil rights advocates’ (228). The very nature of the system itself victimises our children in a way that makes it unlikely that NGOs will defend them or take up their cause. This is what has to end. As well as any support of ‘colourblindness’, even if it seems that will solve problems in the short-term: ‘Our commitment to colorblindness extends beyond individuals to institutions and social arrangements. We have become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste in America’ [241].

I love most the call to fight this system, fight for everyone incarcerated, and to fight the rhetoric of colourblindness.

Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream-a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for. [244]

Angela Davis: Women, Race, Class

Angela DavisAn important work marking the intersections of class, race and gender…and all the history behind people you’ve vaguely looked up to because no one ever talks about the way they really felt about Black people. So you can respect some of what they’ve done, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger are forever debarred from my cannon of heroes.

In criticising the 14th and 15th amendments, Stanton and Anthony descended into a horrifying racism, and I believe Davis is right when she writes

Granted they felt they had as powerful a case for suffrage as Black men. Yet in articulating their opposition with arguments invoking the privileges of white supremacy, they revealed how defenceless they remained–even after years of involvement in progressive causes–to the pernicious ideological influence of racism.[76]

Anthony confessed to having capitulated to racism ”on the ground of expediency”, and remained chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association through 1900. Despite knowing people like Frederick Douglass (whose incredible grasp of movement and the importance of fighting on fronts of race, class and gender simultaneously is so incredibly inspiring)and Ida B. Wells.

Davis writes

In the eyes of the suffragists, “woman was the ultimate test — if the cause of woman could be furthered, it was not wrong for women to function as scabs when male workers in their trade were on strike [139-140]

With Davis I would agree this was a deeply damaging viewpoint, but one that must be critiqued and should never be forgotten–like Sangar’s flirtation with eugenics.

What I love is how this book rescues the real heroes, the people who should also never be forgotten. The working class women that joined the privileged group at Seneca Falls like Charlotte Woodward, who said:

We women work secretly in the seclusion of our bed chambers because all society was built on the theory that men, not women, earned money and that men alone supported the family … I do not believe that there was any community in which the souls of some women were not beating their wings in rebellion. For my own obscure self, I can say that every fibre of my being rebelled, although silently, all the hours that I sat and sewed gloves for a miserable pittance which, as it was earned, could never be mine. I wanted to work, but I wanted to choose my task and I wanted to collect my wages. That was my form of rebellion against the life into which I was born.

I had never known the extent of Ida B. Wells’ work. Her first pamphlet against lynching was published in 1895. Called A Red Record, she calculated over 10,000 lynchings had taken place between 1865 and 1895, she writes:

Not all nor nearly all of the murders done by white men during the past thirty years have come to light, but the statistics as gathered and preserved by white men, and which have not been questioned, show that during these years more than ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution. And yet, as evidence of the absolute impunity with which the white man dares to kill a Negro, the same record shows that during all these years, and for all these murders, only three white men have been tried, convicted and executed. As no white man has been lynched for the murder of coloured people, these three executions are the only instances of the death penalty being visited upon white men for murdering Negroes. [184]

The way she was treated in the mainstream press is almost unthinkable today, the New York Times editorializing in 1904:

Immediately following the day of Miss Wells’ return to the United States, a Negro man assaulted a white woman in New York City ‘for the purposes of lust and plunder.’ … The circumstances of his fiendish crime may serve to convince the mulatress missionary that the promulgation in New York just now of her theory of Negro outrages is, to sya the least, inopportune.’ [192]

Davis deals with some of the ways that this connects to gender construction through the characterization of black men as rapists, and to class as ‘white workers who assented to lynching necessarily assumed a posture of racial solidarity with the white men who were really their oppressors. This was a critical moment in the popularization of racist ideology’ [190]. These are issues that definitely needed — and have received — much more attention since this was published, but as a summation of all that we knew, a rescuing and restating of feminist and anti-racist and marxist histories, and a call to future scholarship, this book is brilliant.

For more on intersections of race, class and gender…

 

Black Feminist Thought: Patricia Hill Collins

I loved Black Feminist Thought, the way it battles to discover what is unique to black women’s voices and experiences, and how they can empower, aid in resistance, and form part of the larger coalition that is needed to create a more just world.

I’ve pulled out her own basic summary of what she wants this book to do and be, because it highlights what is missing from much other work, and because it is ambitious and beautiful and she almost does it all:

First, I was committed to making this book intellectually rigorous, well researched, and accessible to more than the select few fortunate enough to receive elite educations.

Second, I place Black women’s experiences and ideas at the center of analysis…I take a similar stance regarding Marxist social theory and Afrocentric thought. In order to capture the interconnections of race, gender, and social class in Black women’s lives and their effect on Black feminist thought, I explicitly rejected grounding my analysis in any single theoretical tradition.

Third, I deliberately include numerous quotations from a range of African-American women thinkers, some well known and others rarely heard from. Explicitly grounding my analysis in multiple voices highlights the diversity, richness, and power of Black women’s ideas as part of a long-standing African-American women’s intellectual community. Moreover, this approach counteracts the tendency of mainstream scholarship to canonize a few Black women as spokespersons for the group and then refuse to listen to any but these select few.

Fourth, I used a distinctive methodology in preparing this manuscript which illustrates how thought and action can work together in generating theory. Much of my formal academic training has been designed to show me that I must alienate myself from my communities, my family, and even my own self in order to produce credible intellectual work. Instead of viewing the everyday as a negative influence on my theorizing, I tried to see how the everyday actions and ideas of the Black women in my life reflected the theoretical issues I claimed were so important to them. Lacking grants, fellowships, release time, or other benefits that allow scholars to remove themselves from everyday life and contemplate its contours and meaning, I wrote this book while fully immersed in ordinary activities [xiii]

Fifth, in order to demonstrate the existence and authenticity of Black feminist thought, I present it as being coherent and basically complete. This portrayal is in contrast to my actual view that theory is rarely this smoothly constructed. Most theories are characterized by internal instability, are contested, and are divided by competing emphases and interests. When I considered that Black feminist thought is currently embedded in a larger political and intellectual context that challenges its very right to exist, I decided not to stress the contradictions, frictions, and inconsistencies of Black feminist thought. Instead I present Black feminist thought as overly coherent, but I do so because I suspect that this approach is most appropriate for this historical moment. I hope to see other volumes emerge which will be more willing to present Black feminist thought as a shifting mosaic of competing ideas and interests.

Finally, writing this book has convinced me of the need to reconcile subjectivity and objectivity in producing scholarship. Initially I found the movement between my training as an “objective” social scientist and my daily experiences as an African-American woman jarring. But reconciling what we have been trained to see as opposites, a reconciliation signaled by my inserting myself in the text by using “I,” “we,” and “our” instead of the more distancing terms “they” and “one,” was freeing for me. [xiv]

It is a key for the theorisation of movement I think, the ways in which different struggles come together. I find that I quite hate the words ‘identity politics’, they carry with them a negativity now, as though women, African-Americans, queer folks did not need to find their voice and power and address the terrible things that they faced unique to other groups. Class politics are not seen as identity politics, though class is an identity as much as anything else. She begins to work through the differences between autonomy and separatism, though I think more needs to be done

In her introduction to Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, Barbara Smith describes this difference: “Autonomy and separatism are fundamentally different. Whereas autonomy comes from a position of strength, separatism comes from a position of fear. When we’re truly autonomous we can deal with other kinds of people, a multiplicity of issues, and with difference, because we have formed a solid base of strength” (1983, xl). [35]

… the full actualization of Black feminist thought requires a collaborative enterprise with Black women at the center of a community based on coalitions among autonomous groups. [36]

How this will actually work in practice is what is absent from this book, but helping to form a position of wholeness and strength from which to work and struggle in solidarity is its strength. It also opens up a greater analytical depth in analysis of oppression, she writes

Replacing additive models of oppression with interlocking ones creates possibilities for new paradigms. The significance of seeing race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression is that such an approach fosters a paradigmatic shift of thinking inclusively about other oppressions, such as age, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. Race, class, and gender represent the three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American women. But these systems and the economic, political, and ideological conditions that support them may not be the most fundamental oppressions, and they certainly affect many more groups than Black women.
Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the center of analysis opens up possibilities for a both/and conceptual stance, one in which all groups possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege in one historically created system. In this system, for example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed. [225]

This, to me, summarises how we all need to be looking at the world and our place in it. She draws from bell hooks to look at how the ‘matrix of domination’ works along axes of class, race, and gender, and how these are experienced and resisted at three different levels: the personal, the group or community, and systemic level of societal institutions. All three must be studied, challenged. I particularly liked the examination of ‘the objectification of the black woman as other’, as much of this was more new to me (my own fault I know) and I had never really thought through how black and white identity are so intertwined through the ways in which those with power have posited them in opposition and in destructive binaries that made me physically nauseous. The ways in which such awfulness has infected everything, particularly sex and self-valuation I found so important, so obvious when pointed out but something like an unknown source of pain until it was.

I also loved that it ended with a way forward, I always love books that do such a wonderful thing, and they are so rare. But Collins outlines an afrocentric feminist epistemology that I find quite useful, especially in highlighting what is absent from academia today. The main headings are:

1. Concrete experience as a criterion of meaning. This puts a huge crack in academic expertise, which perhaps explains why I still find experience, even professional experience, not valued in academic institutions.

2. The use of dialogue in assessing knowledge. Sitting down together to talk through an issue to discover deeper truths? My favourite thing, and more effective than debate in my opinion.

3. The ethic of caring. A respect for individual uniqueness, for the emotions attached to our words, a development of our capacity for empathy. How better to theorise the making of a better world?

4. The ethic of personal accountability. What we do impacts others, and we can disempower, empower, or best of all? Co-create.

I feel like this should be a manifesto that people sign on to.

I know that this is early work, and in a later essay I’ve read Collins offers some critique and talks about the ways in which her thinking has moved forward, particularly around her thinking on autonomy and etc, I so look forward to moving with her! And until I read this I had never heard of June Jordan, but there are a couple of quotes in here that gave me a huge writer crush. The way that Collins draws on such a wide array of authors makes this also an amazing resource for voices rarely heard but very wise…

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Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis

Sugrue - The Origins of the Urban CrisisThomas Sugrue (2005) University of Princeton Press

Stunning really, searing and beautifully thorough research on race, political economy and the urban fabric of Detroit.

He engages with some central questions: what the hell happened to rust belt cities, how did they turn from industrial centers to economic backwaters, how did the ghetto form, how did segregation and racism persist? He then answers these questions, in the process knocking the almost the entire body of literature on the ‘underclass’ out of the ballpark. He does build on those that contained some structural analysis, but looks at a multiplicity of structural forces rather than just one or two (like deindustrialization or racism) and also follows a more historical approach, seeing the origins of the urban crisis in the 1940s and 50s. He does not avoid the question of agency — and there is so much in here about grassroots action — but paraphrases Marx when he says “Economic and racial inequality constrain individual and family choices. They set the limits of human agency. Within the bounds of the possible, individuals and families resist, adapt, or succumb.” His main thesis:

Detroit’s postwar urban crisis emerged as the consequence of two of the most important, interrelated, and unresolved problems in American history: that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately borne the impact of that inequality.

I find his work most interesting in the way he looks at race and space, though I don’t fully agree with his view of race. He writes “Discrimination by race was a central fact of life in the postwar city. But the dimensions, significance, and very meaning of race differed depending on its cultural, political, and economic context. … Racial ideology, a shifting and fluid popular vernacular of race, served as the backdrop to the relationship between blacks and whites in the postwar city.” Discrimination and ideologies of race are indeed shifting things articulated with cultural, political and economic context, but never a backdrop. The opportunity this book misses is a deeper theorisation of the way the events it relates also formed racial ideologies. This is not to deny that ideology also worked on more of a national level, and that ideas of blackness

In mid-twentieth-century Detroit, as in the rest of the nation, racial identities rested on Widely held assumptions about the inferior intelligence of blacks, notions that blacks were physiologically better suited for certain types of work, and stereotypes about black licentiousness, sexual promiscuity, laziness, and dependence.

did not shape history as much as ideas of whiteness

On the other side was the persistent association of whiteness with Americanism, hard work, sexual restraint, and independence. These assumptions about racial difference were
nourished by a newly assertive whiteness

He argues that in addition to culture, “Perhaps most important in shaping the concept of race in the postwar ‘period, I argue, were local and national politics. Race was as much a political as a social construction.” But for me, the most interesting thing about this is that he is the first (that I have seen) to deeply examine how race and space intertwine, and the consequences of this third factor in conceptions of race:

Perceptions of racial differences were not, I argue, wholly, or even primarily, the consequences of popular culture. If they were, they would not have had such extraordinary staying power. In the postwar city, blackness and whiteness assumed a spatial definition. The physical state of African American neighborhoods and white neighborhoods in Detroit reinforced perceptions of race. The completeness of racial segregation made ghettoization seem an inevitable, natural consequence of profound racial differences. The barriers that kept blacks confined to racially isolated, deteriorating, inner-city neighborhoods were largely invisible to white Detroiters. To the majority of untutored white observers, visible poverty, overcrowding, and deteriorating houses were signs of individual moral deficiencies, not manifestations of structural inequalities. White perceptions of black neighborhoods provided seemingly irrefutable confirmation of African American inferiority and set the terms of debates over the inclusion of African Americans in the city’s housing and labor markets.

Much later in the book he goes on to say

“Racial incidents encoded possession and difference in urban space. Residents of postwar Detroit carried with them a cognitive map that helped them negotiate the complex urban landscape. In a large, amorphous twentieth-century city like Detroit, there were few visible landmarks to distinguish one neighborhood from another, But residents imposed onto the city’s featureless topography all sorts of invisible boundaries-boundaries shaped by intimate association, by institutions (like public-school catchment areas or Catholic parish boundaries), by class, and, most importantly, by race.

The sustained violence in Detroit’s neighborhoods was the consummate act in a process of identity formation. White Detroiters invented communities of race in the city that they defined spatially. Race in the postwar city was not just a cultural construction, Instead, whiteness, and by implication blackness, assumed a material dimension, imposed onto the geography of the city. Through the drawing of racial boundaries and through the use of systematic violence to maintain those boundaries, whites reinforced their own fragile racial identity.”

How fascinating is that? And depressing. I read this with a little pit of fear that I would run across family members in the accounts of furious blue collar white Catholic homeowners (I didn’t).
But what makes this book so fantastic is its breadth. It looks at space and segregation, but also at work and the process of deindustrialisation, it looks at struggle — both that of African Americans and the grassroots efforts of whites to preserve their neighborhoods, it looks at layers of party politics both local and national, it looks at developers and real estate agents. It looks at gender, at class divisions in the African American community, at union politics and schisms and the way that race consistently trumped class and how homeownership shifted working class consciousness, at the development of discourses around rights and property and housing, shifts in the meaning of liberalism.

This is scholarship to aspire to, the kind of research we need to understand the complexities of race in our cities today and think about effective struggle, and I look forward to reading it again, as its breadth ensures I will find a whole new excitement in it I am sure.

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My Blue Heaven: South Gate and White Working Class Identity

My Blue Heaven - Becky NicolaidesBecky Nicolaides’ My Blue Heaven is a marvelously well researched and incredibly detailed look at the lives of people in South Gate, one which challenges a number of common assumptions about the suburbs while providing evidence for others.

I love how it details the ways that ideas and meanings of home and community were constructed, and their change over time. My Blue Heaven‘s principal argument is that from the 1920s through WWII, home was primarily a survival strategy for the working class. They bought affordable lots and built homes as and when they could, using extensive yards to grow food, thus provisioning themselves against want outside of the cash economy. At this time, residents felt that lower taxes were more important than school segregation for example, highlighting the precariousness of their living situation. This shifted after World War II, as South Gate came to resemble other suburbs such as Lakewood in its infrastructure and tract housing, and as owner salaries rose and situations improved, their homes became principally investments and marks of status. This led to a very strong feeling around taxes. Thus their bitter struggle against school integration, and defensive posture around residential integration to protect home values.

It is an interesting thing to think about, that poverty should make people less inclined to active racism when there were incentives to the contrary. Yet racism was no less virulent for communities made up of so many Southern migrants:

In 1925, the local booster-editor asserted “Home Gardens is a town of, by and for workingmen — and we want hundreds more of them. The only restrictions are racial — the white race only may own property here,” [27]

But this tension isn’t explored as much as I wished it to be, although the racial tensions post WWII are quite well documented. This is also true of the shift in how individuals saw taxes, and the foundations of Prop 13, and the today’s anti-tax conservatism. It is a fundamental dynamic in American politics, and this is some of the best evidence I’ve seen in terms of understanding how American politics has developed, both in the origins of strong-held opinions on the importance of low taxes:

When boom hit bust in the 1930s, their assumptions about the role of individuals and government began to shift. As both the politics of development and education revealed, residents began with the unspoken assumption that the burden of financing municipal services-from streets to schools-should fall on the backs of individual property owners, including the humble working-class home owner. Embracing an ethos of privatism, they believed property ownership conferred the responsibility of municipal stewardship. All property owners- regardless of wealth-became urban stewards. It was thus up to individuals, not government more broadly, to pay for services. In a poorer suburb like South Gate, residents simply chose to limit these services, to create a modest infrastructure that they could reasonably afford. There was no assumption that urban services were a right, and that they should be financed through a redistributive system of taxation. This reflected their deeply held ideals of individualism, self- help, hard work, plain-folk Americanism’ and anticommunism, an outlook asserting that urban fiscal policy ought to be based on a private approach rather than a collective one.

and then the ways in which discussions around taxes have also become coded in terms of race through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s

In numerous public statements, “taxes” became a coded reference to civil rights and programs for minorities, an excellent local example of the national trend that saw an overlapping of race and taxes as political issues. “While you work and sweat to protect your earnings and property, the politicians scheme with their minority supporters to put you in a hopeless position to protect yourself against raids of everything you work for…. Today CORE, NAACP, COPE [302] and their like are the only participants who pressure our legislators for the kind of government we have now, while today’s citizen is a drone, quite impotent in local affairs because he stays home, and our taxes continue to go up, up and up,”

It is extraordinary to watch a working class community shift from supporters of EPIC and the New Deal, to supporters of conservative Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. But through this historical view it finally makes some kind of sense…it also contains a lot of more ethnographic and quite fascinating information on daily life, entertainment, and particularly labor. Nicolaides argues that home became the center of people’s lives rather than their work, and explores some of its implications for labor.

Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in any of these topics, and a beautiful example of an in depth historical view of a single suburb that manages to give insight into key historical forces happening all over the country.

[Nicolaides, Becky M. (2002) My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]