Tag Archives: Cities

The Watts Uprising: Sears & McConahay’s Politics of Violence

In The Politics of Violence, Sears & McConahay offer a detailed and academic study of the Watts uprising, sometimes known as the riots. Their goal in their own words:

This is a book about the political and social psychology of the Los Angeles Watts Riot of August 1965, an event that changed the course of American race relations. We shall attempt here to formulate, and to subject to rigorous empirical test, a comprehensive social psychological theory of urban mass violence. Two basic questions will be addressed: (1) Can riot participation rightfully be interpreted as a political act? (2) What were the major political effects of the riot? (vii)

The framing of this isn’t quite the way I’d go about it, but what it comes up with is very interesting. They follow these two main goals up with additional questions they believe are important, and that in themselves are insightful into the ways that the Watts uprising has been understand and the questions that it has raised for the wider society:

(1) Why did the riot happen in 1965, of all times, in the midst of what was apparently an unprecedented national civil rights effort, with the most sympathetic white public, President, Congress, and judiciary in history, and in the midst of great prosperity? (2) Why did it happen in Los Angeles, of all places, generally thought to be among the most pleasant, open, and egalitarian of American cities? (3) Was the riot politically meaningful in origin; that is, did it grow out of no longer tolerable social conditions that had to be reformed if further riots and miseries were to be avoided? Or was it a politically meaningless explosion, generated mainly by criminals, malcontents, or a few agitators, who managed to dupe hapless innocents? (4) What were the political consequences of the rioting? Did it lead whites to further sympathy for black people, and at long last spur them out of lethargy into remedial social action, or did it create a massive backlash that abruptly terminated the sympathetic consensus and thrust for civil rights progress? Did it horrify and terrify decent black citizens into a renunciation of all forms of confrontation, or provide for a general uplift in black pride and black solidarity, or fuel the advocacy of militant action and racial violence? Did race relations move into a more mature and realistic era, or regress into greater suspiciousness, hostility, and distance? (viii)

I liked this especially:

For simplicity’s sake, though, we have decided to use the term “riot” because it was used overwhelmingly in the media and by most of our respondents. Our data indicate, as will be seen, that it was more of a “rebellion” than a “riot,” but we will let our data speak for themselves and not try to prejudge the case by selecting a less commonly used word (ix).

Also this:

Blacks in Los Angeles had been angry for a long time, perhaps since first Negro arrived and the Los Angeles Times began printing a column (c. 1880)entitled “News From Nigger Alley. Nevertheless, most whites were unaware of the extent and depth of black grievances until after the rioting of 1965 (55).

But their findings on whites are more interesting really. They write:

One consequence of these mild peculiarities of the early settlers, and of the life style they created for themselves, was a profound degree of black invisibility–both before and after the mass immigration of blacks to Los Angeles. By “invisibility” we mean an absence of blacks in the perceptual world of white Southern Californians. Whites were (and are) physically isolated from blacks (134).

In analysing the reasons for this, Sears & McConahay come up with a list of explanatory factors: ‘The Naive In-Migrant’, often from the Mid-West and unused to Black folks and believing the West was free of such problems; ‘Racial Isolation’, a disperse urban pattern and segregation kept them apart and interestingly this: ‘the uniquely retreatist or privatistic life style of today’s new American suburbs has flourished in Los Angeles for many years, further diminishing the opportunities for interracial contact (135); ‘De Facto Segregation’ both in residence, but also shopping patterns and lack of public transportation causes greater isolation; ‘Invisibility in the Media’ (there is an amazing graph on this).

I’m not sure I buy their analysis that L.A.’s version of racism was primarily symbolic–having researched and read enough horribly vile leaflets and letters against integration, and given the Klan’s popularity. This sort of nastiness most associated with the deep South (from whence many whites moved to L.A.) was alive and well alongside more puritanical judgements, fear of the unknown and etc. I don’t believe much tension arose from whites attempting to impose traditional puritanical mores onto different cultures, alternative values and lifestyles — Douglas Flamming’s work, for example, on African Americans in L.A. seems to show at least a large portion of the community were just as believing in hard work and striving for middle-classness as anyone else. Where it does make sense is this world view demanding belief that each individual is what they make of themselves with no allowance for racism’s structural features.

So it’s a interesting line they take, mostly using ‘Black invisibility’ to argue that whites just didn’t know what was happening. I’d say more that they didn’t want to know, but this is really interesting:

Finally, it is this combination of invisibility, indifference, and ignorance, on the one hand, and the moralism of symbolic racism, on the other, that evoked, we believe, one of the oddest and least expected aspects of the riot; namely, the widespread feeling among blacks that the riot was a demand for attention more than an effort to redress specific and concrete deficiencies in their lives (144).

And again, they refer to this spatial aspect in which L.A. is a prototype rather than exception for sprawling development:

In the near future, at least, it appears that the dominant suburban pattern will be traditional values and privatize life styles in an ethnically homogeneous retreat from blacks who are isolated in the central city (even when the retreat is homogeneously populated with Roman Catholics espousing Protestant virtues). In this sense, then, Los Angeles differs from the rest of America only in that it is the most American of all (146).

So responses:

The racial polarization of local black and white leaders was duplicated almost immediately in the responses of the black and white publics, These descriptions of and feelings about the riot were as different as night and day and they formed the basis for a broad initial polarization over the issue of the riot, with blacks joined by a few liberal whites on one side, against most whites on the other….Most blacks perceived the riot as (1) a purposeful symbolic protest (2) against legitimate grievances, (3) designed to call attention to Blacks’ problems…When asked directly, a majority felt the riot did have a purpose or a goal, felt that the targets deserved attack, and agreed that the riot constituted a black protest. Also, when given a free choice of descriptive terms, a surprisingly large minority [38%] chose to talk about it in revolutionary or insurrectional terms… (159).

It continues: ‘Most though Whites had become more “aware of Negroes’ problems” and more sympathetic to them as a consequence of the riot’ (161). Also that ‘The blacks’ sympathies generally were with the rioters, not with the authorities. Disapproval of the rioters was not as common as it was of the riot itself’ (163).

It breaks my heart to read the contrast:

The story told by whites and Mexican Americans was quite different. Many (especially those close to the Curfew Zone) felt fear for their own safety or for their families’ safety during the disturbance. The Mexican American respondents in our sample (all of whom actually lived in the Curfew Zone) were particularly frightened: 52 per cent reported feeling a “great deal” of fear. Fear among whites was greatest in Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park, two integrated communities on the edge of the Curfew Zone (35 per cent reported a “great deal”) but, even in affluent Pacific Palisades 20 miles from the riot, 12 per cent reported “a great deal” of fear.
Accompanying the fear was much serious thought about obtaining guns for armed counterviolence. Forty-two per cent of the Mexican Americans and 29 per cent of the whites said “yes” to the question, “Did you at any time consider using firearms to protect yourself or your family?” Also, 5 per cent of the whites and 7 per cent of the Mexican Americans reported that they actually had bought firearms or ammunition as a consequence of the riot (164).

Almost all Whites and Mexican-Americans supported the tough, uncompromising stand toward the rioters that chief Parker and the other California law enforcement authorities established. Both groups almost invariably praised the authorities or criticized them for not being even tougher…Whites and Mexican Americans did agree, in general, that it had been a black protest but they were extremely unlikely to describe the riot in revolutionary terms…Finally, then, it should come as no surprise to learn that whites and Mexican Americans thought the riot would have quite unfavorable effects for blacks (165).

The impact this had on perceptions and strategies for struggle in teh Black community are also revealing:

Thus, our hypothesis was that the junction of the New Urban Blacks and “Watts” would leave the younger generation (irrespective of background) more drawn to imaginative and unconventional strategies, particularly those emphasizing protest and violence.

Participation in the Watts Riot itself was one key indicator of this effect. We have seen in Chapter 2 that youth was a critical factor in riot participation and in Chapters 6 and 7 that it was not merely “animal spirits” that led the young into the fray. Rather, they engaged in the riot from the same sense of grievance as older rioters.
Willingness to engage in future protest demonstrations and preference for the use of violence in the future both showed the same effect. The young were much more drawn to both protest and violence than their elders.

Malcolm X, the continuing rise of the Nation of Islam, U.S. and the Black Panthers…hardly a surprise. The authors tie the riots into a rise in Black Pride:

‘a new and more positive conception of what it meant to be black emerged in the aftermath of the violence. The riot ideology was intimately involved with this post-riot increase in positive black identity. Specifically, it seems to have occurred as part of the interpretation of the riot as a collective symbolic protest.

And this is beautiful really, in spite of painfully moralistic language and class expectations:

We have seen repeatedly that local grievances, riot participation, and the riot ideology were not to be found merely in a few deviants, isolates, political “kooks,” or half-socialized idiots. They were to be found at least as often (and frequently to an even greater degree) in the best educated, most sophisticated, most completely socialized, most modern blacks in Los Angeles. And the same is true of positive black identity: it was, in the aftermath of “Watts,” truly a mainstream value in the black community (189).

The conclusion actually does recap in detail the entire argument, and contains this nice summary of the various theories also put forward to explain the Watts uprising–and demolished quite convincingly by this book:

We constructed and then rejected empirically one formal nonpolitical alternative to our politics of violence theory, “the random outburst theory”…We also presented the far less formalized “theories” offered by authorities and by the general public. We described the conspiracy, contagion, riffraff, underclass, family life breakdown, and southern newcomer “theories” and indicated that, with the exception of unemployed males, who were quite active, they did not fit the data…The most systematic alternative formulation we considered was Banfield’s (1970) “fun and profit” theory. We described and refuted empirically his three main propositions: that the rioting simply reflected greater propensity to violence among lower classes, southerners, and the young; that it was merely a rampage or foray for pillage, rather than being motivated by identifiable and genuine discontents; and that the riot ideology merely represented post hoc rationalizations. (201).

And then in a fairly damning indictment, they list all of the recommendations made by numerous commissions on violence and rioting beginning in 1919, that are almost word for word the same:

The recommendations invariably called for a reduction of unemployment, opening of the job structure to blacks, reform of education and of programs to improve the scholastic attainments of blacks, reform of the welfare system (to cut costs) and to give the recipients “who wanted to work” assistance in getting a job, improvement of housing quality and availability, and, finally, suggestions for future police strategies. With the exception of this last [Kerner Commission], none of the recommendations made since 1919 has been pursued with any vigor and most have remained entombed in the bound official reports to be resurrected after the next series of riots (292).

The authors go further than these ‘liberal’ formulations. Ones I think the course of histor since 1973 has challenged (along with their theorization of ‘symbolic racism’) but here they are:

Jobs, housing, education, anti-discrimination laws–all of these are necessary, but insufficient answers to mounting black disaffection. In addition, symbolic gestures are called for, to deal with symbolic discontents. That a presidential candidate or a mayor would walk through the streets of Harlem or Watts or that a President would use the phrase “we shall overcome” in a message on civil rights has a profound positive effect….
With these cautions we conclude our “recommendations.” It is obvious that America does not lack for recommendations. What she lacks is equally obvious and very simple: the will to implement them. Since we doubt that white America is on the verge of suddenly acquiring this will, we feel little compulsion to add further to the list of recommendations (205).

Massey & Denton on American Apartheid

American ApartheidAmerican Apartheid set my teeth on edge, and it was hard for a while to figure out why as I agree with many of the findings, and their research into changing levels of segregation over decades in cities across America is vital and well carried out. They describe segregation as one of, if not the, principal ills of American society, and one far too long and too often ignored. Like Stephen Meyer, and writing long before him, they see white racism as a principal factor in this and have worked to document it, but do not fail to note the institutionalised forms it has taken through real estate practices and government regulation and policy. You know I liked all of that.

I think it’s firstly the use of the term ‘underclass’. This is my first foray into the literature and I know it has been a common term even among well-meaning people, but frankly if you called someone underclass to their face it would be considered an insult. How then can you label thousands of inner-city residents as such en masse just because you do so in books you think they will never read? It’s a basic question of respect, the most basic demand of all inner city residents who have to fight for it every day, unlike academics. And to me it is emblematic of where you stand, and the perspective from which you write.

They quote a few rap lyrics, and god knows enough of those are problematic. But there is nothing about the brilliant and long-standing tradition of political commentary and consciousness emerging from the ‘underclass’ in rap and R&B. They go on to quote Skogan and essentially use the broken-windows theory as part (not the principal part to be sure, but it makes the hackles rise) of their argument about the ghetto’s impacts, blaming unkempt properties for rising crime without properly fixing blame. They don’t seem to really see the massive struggles of local homeowners to get funding to fix up their properties (the difficulties are noted elsewhere to be fair, but not in this context) and just how much they achieve (and maintain) in the face of all odds, or the struggles of tenants and local organisations to improve slum housing. Having spent years of my life on this issue, I believe the real problem is an absence of credit for those who live there (except in the case of predatory lenders), and the incredibly high density of absentee landlords milking properties for maximum profit until they are literally falling down (and killing tenants when they do so), burning them down when that makes business sense. How can anyone be more or less offhand about the impunity of such a thing? As fundamental as the question of how people are contained within the ghetto is the very real problem of who owns it, and what they are allowed to do with it and to it. The ‘downward spiral’ they describe corresponds to profits extracted and resources withdrawn.

But of course such a criticism is not really to the point, as this book is entirely about getting people out of the ghetto, seeing it as backward and possibly harmful to try and improve conditions within it. My principal issue is that such an objective of ‘dismantling’, whatever that means exactly, might well have to be carried out in spite of many ghetto residents themselves. Massey & Denton criticise Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton when they problematise integration, blames black politicans and business owners for their material interests in maintaining areas of concentrated blackness. In South Central there may be plenty of people who want to get out, but there are plenty who call it home, who love it as much as they hate aspects of it, who are working hard to make it a better place. Gentrification is making this a particularly poignant issue, as some neighborhoods are becoming integrated again for the first time in decades–often due to the successes of local groups in improving their neighborhood conditions–but only for a fleeting moment before the people of colour are pushed out into the hinterlands where they may arguably be worse off than they were in the inner cities.

I understand the practicalities of a ‘sensible’ and easily applied policy solution, the idea that fixing housing discrimination (without major changes to current law even, through simple enforcement!) fixes the problems of race relations and the poverty of the ghetto might have appealed to politicians (though it clearly didn’t). But this data, this narrative to me points to the fact that we need to rethink housing and land use all together, that the housing market itself might be a problem in a country where working for minimum wage keeps you below the poverty line and thus safe, secure, and healthy housing is never affordable without immense (and almost nonexistant) subsidies. There are deeper issues, and looking to successes in other countries shows we need to escape our current definitions of liberal and conservative. Why can we not reimagine public housing?

But on their own terms, I simply don’t think litigation alone ever solves problems, however heroic such efforts are. That those living in the ghetto have been victimised by society none can deny, but even if you don’t believe that they are capable of understanding or fighting these dynamics, at the end of the day political will to tackle issues of poverty and race only comes through greater struggle.

As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods

2906999Stephen Grant Meyer (1999) Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

This is a great book on the subject, impeccably researched as you can tell with even a cursory glance at the copious notes. Its conclusions are not at all pleasant nor hopeful, but chime directly with my own experience in LA. They are that racism is the fundamental factor explaining segregation, and that this racism in the general white population is what drove discriminatory legislation and institutional practices, rather than the other way around. As he says, “Realty companies, lending institutions, and governments have engaged in activities that sustain the community’s segregationist wishes. In so doing, however, they represent the will of their constituencies.” This certainly counters other arguments, like those found in Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, explaining segregation primarily through the action of such external forces on individuals who may wish to do the right thing really.

The evidence is there, and it is a strong argument because Meyer does not ignore external forces, there is a great deal in here about racially restrictive zoning and covenants, discriminatory practices in real estate, the role of the FHA and etc. But he marshals a massive amount of everyday evidence of the extremely violent reactions of everyday white folks to a black face moving into their neighborhood in cities across the nation. The South may be special, but his argument is that racism exists alive and well across the rest of the country, and the South just might be distracting us from that. There have been thousands of bombings, death threats, mobs demanding that people get out. In Los Angeles. In Berkeley. In Cincinatti. In Chicago. And while the NAACP and others have fought immensely hard (it took the assassination of Martin Luther King to get the Fair Housing Act passed in its third year of deliberation, only a week after his death) to enact legislation and establish legal precedents that make official policies of segregation illegal and prosecutable (if barely), the truth remains that America continues to be a highly segregated country. In fact, many studies show higher levels of segregation now than in the 1960s.

This is a terrible catalog of injustice, though it also charts the courage and inspiration of those who stood against it. But more importantly than reclaiming a deeper and truer sense of our history, its importance lies in how we struggle for the rights of all people to live wherever they may choose without threat, harassment, or discomfort. If this is true, the struggle for this right cannot be solely, or even primarily based on legal or policy strategies, it has to tackle something deeper and uglier than mere laws on paper. That is left to the imagination I am afraid.

I think in many ways Meyer is absolutely right. I found it particularly poignant when he looks at the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the way that Northern whites were in full support of campaigns against Jim Crow in the South, yet dropped away from the movement or even opposed it when blacks attempted to achieve fair housing in their own cities. That hasn’t changed at all, just ask anyone working in the inner cities. But I feel that there is something else going on, something that is not more fundamental than race but that articulates with it, to use the words of Stuart Hall, whose work I’m still trying to wrap my head around. And to carry on the struggle, it’s important to understand how capitalism or neoliberalism intersects with this fundamental reality of racism. But I haven’t the answers to that yet.

Thoughts on the Chicago Skyline

Downtown Chicago is all planes and angles, contrasts in brick and stone, glass and steel. It is full of amazing reflections in glass.

You see it at one level from the street, and another entirely from the El train, and from both it is visually spectacular. Your fingers itch for your camera, every step brings a shift in the lines, and changes the seen and the unseen.

I had half a day on Monday after a morning meeting, so I thought I’d do the Architectural Boat Tour, 90 minutes along the river and almost all the pictures a lustful heart could ask for…as the river goes round the loop and not through it.

But I confess my extreme love for these great buildings piled one on top of the other sits miserably with my love of social and environmental justice. They are contradictions impossible to overcome. I wonder if perhaps I love them (and hate them) for their colossal and unbelievable arrogance, because it is combined with such extraordinary technical and engineering skill. I love the fact that we have figured out how to build such things, hurling metal and glass up to the sky. I suppose we never stopped to ask whether we should. And the wealth required to build such buildings…where does it come from? Chicago is as much a city of immense poverty as it is a city of beauty. And that is where you find the answer. My question is whether we could build such things without exploitation, and in a way that sits happily on the earth.

On the tour, the guide was full of information on architectural styles and the men who created them, the requirements of building something like the Sears tower, the Trump tower, and towers x, y, and z. Everything was entirely divorced from the city or the people who live in it with the exception of a single architect, Bertrand Goldberg. He designed Marina City, which I love.

I have always loved round buildings. But the guide explained that he also tried to design buildings to create community, to encourage contact between neighbors, to provide immediate access to life’s amenities. Another of his buildings is River City

These buildings are all mixed use, with stores, child care, and access to a marina beneath. The balconies  are close together to bring neighbors together. They have beautiful public spaces. He believed density was a good thing, for community, for creativity, for life.

And so I looked him up. And I’m not sure what I think of him, I certainly disagree with much of what he says, but he makes me think. He wrote this of Marina City:

More importantly, in the Marina City forms. I made it possible for people to participate in community formation. Both in the use of space and in the form of space I discovered that behavior can be influenced by the shape of space. The faceless anonymity of the corporate box which we had used for the buildings for our government, our health, our education, our business and our living, I discovered could be replaced more effectively by a new development of architectural structure and forms that supported its use by people. We could have both architecture and humanism just as we had begun to do 200 years before in the social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I love this recognition of the influence of space on the individual and community, and the revolutionary idea that architecture should be for the people and how they will live within it. That it affects how our society lives and grows. He’s not the only one of course, but one of the few. Yet it is a typical liberalism, looking backward to some better time, and only as worthy as it can be without questioning a terribly unjust world. He wrote another speech that offers an interesting reflection on the thoughts above called Rich is Right…exposing all of the contradictions involved in his thinking.

America is rich, America is right. Architects have always worked for the rich. We are now also working for the right.

Ah, if only that were true. Are the rich ever right? I don’t really think so. Our homeless population and slum housing certainly proves otherwise. But it is true that architects have always worked for the rich. I do like such frank admissions. But that leads to the conclusion that the 90% of Americans who are not rich just have to hope that those 10% of quixotic and self-absorbed rich people at some point get it right, no? That seems to require a lot of faith that history has never ever justified.

He goes on, extraordinarily enough, to quote Albert Speer, architect of Hitler. I read Speer’s autobiography some years ago and found it fascinating. He did not just build buildings, he created drama and spectacle, he cemented the image of ultimate power in the minds of the observer. Whenever you see Hitler speaking on a stage with the colossal architecture, the huge backdrops of red banners and striking black swastikas, the eagles, the torches… Speer designed all of that.

Albert Speer- Hitler’s state architect said: “We must learn to master technology and its potential by political means.” In contrast, modern architects of the 19th century all saw architecture as a reform mechanism for politics: that is, for helping solve social problems rooted in urban life and community needs, and for devising improved ways for people to work and learn and grow together.

It seems to me that my Chicago  boat tour proved Speer’s point, that architecture reflects the landscape of political power, and it has been mastered by the Trumps of the world. It is a skyline of corporations, not of government, ideals, or community spaces. Bertrand was alone there in thinking about these things, his buildings stand out because of it.

The tour takes you down the river again almost to the mouth of Lake Michigan. On your left is an urban renewal area. The words urban renewal hurt my soul, always. They usually mean the wholesale clearance of earlier communities, older buildings, of people of color and immigrants and all those who did not master power, who lived lives of poverty and hard work. My people. Urban renewal has been translated into a coastline full of high rise condos. On your right is another urban renewal area. It is also full of high rise condos. You can see down the coastline, more and more and more high rise condos. I didn’t particularly care to hear about the architects.

And they are busy building luxury residences for people who don’t exist. Home sales in Chicago’s metropolitan area are down 27.5% from April 2008, and unemployment is up to 10.1% according to the Illinois Association of Realtors. And they have somehow decided that these condos count as affordable housing and are asking for help:

David Hanna, president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. “The city of Chicago condominium sales numbers continue to reflect a critical need for governmental agencies to review the growing disparity in the ability to finance a condominium purchase in the city. This affordable housing will become unaffordable and unattainable to many qualified first-time homebuyers in the city of Chicago unless existing federal guidelines, which do not take into account nuances of the local market, are modified.”

If they did build affordable condos, I’m sure they wouldn’t be having quite so much trouble…I like to imagine what our cities would look like if they were built for all of the city’s people. Because, I do agree with this final quote from Bertrand Goldberg:

Are cities in our blood?

Are cities the natural forms of shelter which men build for themselves? Like the spider his web, or the oyster his shell? The answer to this is uncertain, but I believe it to be – yea.

I love the city.

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