Tag Archives: race

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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Gerald Horne, Watts and the Fire This Time

Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time is an intriguing study of the Watts uprising, situating it in both a national context of red-baiting and the impact on civil rights struggles of the destruction of any kind of radical class-based organizing, and an international context with its connections to liberation struggles and cold war politics. He argues the uprising marks a full change:

The uprising in Watts was a milestone marking the previous era from what (16) was to come. For blacks it marked the rise of black nationalism, as blacks revolted against police brutality. But what began as a black revolt against the police quickly became a police revolt against blacks. This latter revolt was a milestone too, one marking the onset of a “white backlash” that would propel Ronald Reagan into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento and then the White House. White backlash proved to be more potent than what had given it impetus, black nationalism. This too was the meaning of the 1960s (17).

This is part of a larger argument, and I’d guess it is one he is making across several books – I haven’t read the others, but they are all on my list

I have argued that just as the conflict between capitalism and slavery led to the abolition of bonded labor, the conflict between capitalism and the possibilities of socialism led to the abolition of formal Jim Crow. I am certain that at some point in the twenty-first century, historians will be obligated to tackle this important question–the dismantling of legalized segregation by reference to the Cold War (17).

He also has a clear understanding (though he doesn’t use the same language) as those who describe California’s racial hierarchies – he refers to it as compounded racism drawing on Griswold de Castillo:

The impact of the Mexican heritage of California must be considered also. Blacks could receive civil rights concessions for national security reasons; in California there’ was the added incentive of a competing, compounded racism. By the time Los Angeles experienced another burst of civil unrest in
1992, the city’s Latino, or Spanish-speaking, population was growing more rapidly than monolingual blacks. This created an opportunity for blacks in the city and state to assume the position of “middle man minority” and consequently to gain top posts in City Hall and Sacramento much more rapidly than their Latino counterparts. (18)

This is echoed in the wonderful quotes he draws together about the complexities and contradictions of L.A.’s residential and labour landscapes—this book’s strength is in the framework for analysis and the incredible amount of original source material that he draws from. My only critique is that it seems like a (very large) chapter in a larger work, drawing on an understanding of a radical and left-leaning L.A. that is not widely known, making the framework seem sometimes like an outline, filled in with amazing detail:

Langston Hughes captured the complexity of LA and race at this time. The city, he said, “seemed more a miracle than a city, a place where oranges sold for one cent a dozen, ordinary black folks lived in huge houses with ‘miles of yards,’ and prosperity seemed to reign in spite of the Depression.” Yet he felt that Hollywood “might just as well be controlled by Hitler.” 26 The social scientist Charles Johnson also noticed this racial complexity. “In certain plants where Mexicans were regarded as white, Negroes were not allowed to mix with them; where Mexicans were classed as colored, Negroes not only worked with them but were given positions over them. In certain plants Mexicans and whites worked together; in some others, white workers accepted Negroes and objected to Mexicans; still in others white workers accepted Mexicans and objected to Japanese.”27 When employers hired African Americans, they preferred the light-skinned variety. According to James Gregory nothing bothered Okies more “than California’s system of racial and ethnic relations.” They were shocked by signs reading “no white laborers need apply.” The conflict between their past and present realities helps to explain why a raw racism became a “source of group identity” for many of these migrants from a state known as “Little Dixie.” 28 (29)

Despite, or because of this, many felt it widely understood that L.A. didn’t have the same kind of race problem as did Detroit or Chicago.

Staff member William Colby reminded the McCone Commission about the widespread opinion that “Los Angeles was number 1 as the place where Negroes are better off.” Perhaps because of the affluent stratum of black sports figures and entertainers, cinema and television representations, the appealing climate, or all of the above, the city was favored by many black migrants, not only from the traditional southern areas but also increasingly deteriorating midwestern cities like St. Louis.20 Despite the claims of Colby, a number of blacks viewed the City of Angels as “spiritually below the Mason-Dixon line, without the nastiness of park benches labeled ‘for colored,'” and “40 years behind the rest of the country.” 21 (50) (20. Report by William Colby, 11 Nov. 19 Box 18, 16 McCone Papers)

I love also the drawing out of class divisions, the particularities of Watts that made it the epicentre of rebellion:

On top of the regional insult suffered by all blacks, those of Watts had the added burden to bear that gave added intensity to their anger; they not only faced interracial pain but the intraracial variety as well. Stanley Sanders, the other son of Watts and its first Rhodes scholar, has added his own interpretation. He blamed the building of Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Court, and other housing projects that came to hold a significant percentage of the black poor as being partly responsible for Watts’s image. Out of this vortex emerged gangs like the Black Swans and the Farmers. Each project spawned different gangs, and conflict was not unknown. Speaking in 1990, Sanders recalled that “most middle class blacks” were “afraid to come to Watts.” With a remaining scintilla of bitterness, he recalled rejection at a dance because he came from Watts. He and his friends were deemed “outcasts.” They were “looked down on” by other blacks. They were the “bottom of [the] barrel,” he continued. He remembered not only a “color line” but an “economic” line. There was economic conflict that had both interracial and intraracial consequences. The same could be said of color conflict. There was not only the usual white chauvinism; there were “very few fair skinned blacks in Watts,” and these were perceived as discriminating against their darker brothers and sisters, referring to folks in Watts as “those black niggers in Watts” as if they were “a whole different race.” This combination of resentments–a compounded racism in sum-helps to explain why LA exploded first and with a fervor dwarfing contemporaneous outbursts. 25 (51)

There’s some really interesting stuff about the reaction, and how the uprising was viewed by establishment figures:

Later, after the fires had cooled, journalist Theodore White agreed with Parker: “Modern Negro violence is not simply rioting but an urban form of guerilla warfare” that needed to be confronted with new “weapons and tactics.” Strikingly, White conceded the black nationalists’ argument, even using androcentric terms: “It is, at this time, perhaps necessary to find out how to create some form of Negro self-government coupled with Negro responsibility in the big cities which will give Negroes that sense of control over their own destinies that all men so dearly require.”(64)

This idea I find both fascinating and a bit tragic – the way that Marcus Garvey was also able to find some common cause with white supremacists because both groups wanted black folks to secede, to separate, to segregate. It helps put in perspective the change in the movement post-Watts, and why it was such a crisis for King and others:

The Watts Uprising helped to set in motion a nationalism that filled an ideological void in Black LA. The Black Scare was unpredictable; it could and did present a threat to the person of some elite whites. The stories and pictures of whites being pulled from their cars and attacked were frightening to some of those with melanin deficiency. But, akin to the old Jack Benny joke, where the comedian is torn when the robber demands, “Your money or your life,” LA elites recognized that the nationalists could be accommodated in a way that their militant predecessors of the left could not. As long as separatism was decoupled from reparations, the NOI-influenced nationalism not only did (132) not present a threat to private property, it could even be helpful-along with racism–in keeping apart those who might want to unite jointly against the LAPD and the elites it was sworn to protect. The problem for blacks was that the blows from LAPD batons raining steadily down on their heads — overwhelmingly by white officers commanded by white elites–made any notion of “black and white unite and fight” seem like a delirious dream not even worthy of Hollywood. (133)

And so we are left to look at what remains, what happened to the vibrant movements. He doesn’t go into the destruction of the Panthers, only that their tenure was brief and allusions to the role of the FBI in their demise. But it’s clear why he believes they were targeted as they were:

So, after the excessive fire launched by the LAPD, there was widespread praise for Chief Parker, some flawed affirmative action, and a few other minor reforms. The black community was moving increasingly in a nationalist direction, angry at whites generally and their perceived designated representatives, a mostly.white LAPD. But this sentiment was contained in crystallized form in the theological vessel of the NOI [Nation of Islam]. There was the NAACP, which was perceived as being the spokesman for the middle class. There were gangs, some evolving toward the Black Panther party. And there were the so-called cultural nationalists, who pioneered in the “Black Is Beautiful” movement but allowed themselves to be manipulated against the Panthers. The Panthers had concluded that only armed struggle could repel the LAPD.
Except for the Panthers, all of these forces had rudimentary middle-class ideas about becoming entrepreneurs or middle-level government bureaucrats, or managing illicit empires, or simply finding a way to survive U.S. imperialism mentally and culturally without challenging it. In the 1990s all—except the Panthers—continue to exist. (167)

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).

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.]

Black Marxism – Cedric J. Robinson

Black MarxismBlack Marxism is a book of immense scope and impressive in its immensity. It felt absolutely overwhelming as I read it, but going back over it, it feels more like some kind of treasure trove that will continue to yield new things every time I open its cover — so some initial lengthy yet also paradoxically brief notes…

The European Roots of Capitalism

It begins at the European beginning of Capitalism, going through the rise of the bourgeoisie through first cities, then absolutist and colonial states. As Robinson states: “European civilization is not the product of capitalism. On the contrary, the character of capitalism can only be understood in the social and historical context of its appearance.” [25] And because this is true, the age-old conceptions of race, enemy and exploitable other simply translated itself into new terms as the world changed: “As an enduring principle of European social order, the effects of racialism were bound to appear in the social expression of every strata of every European society no matter the structures upon which they were formed. None was immune. [29]”

He moves on then to look at the English working class, and how their formation was also entwined with racialism. Marx and Engels both acknowledged the existence of racial divisions, but believed that these would be erased as capitalism developed, even though there did not appear to be signs of it happening. As Robinson pointedly notes:

Neither Marx nor Engels were unaware of the proletariat’s failure to become a universal class.76 Both studied the Irish Question closely, were active in the attempt to resolve its destructive impact on the historical processes of English working-class formation, and commented on its import for future proletarian organization. Nevertheless, the impact of their experience with the English proletariat on their theory of the proletariat’s historical role appears to have been slight. [51]

He’s scathing of the whole Socialist tradition really, particularly in its early stages, and in my opinion entirely rightly. Its solid basis lies in the bourgeoisie itself, with no connection to the working classes:

It is a period dominated by eccentrics, visionaries, and didacts. The wistful trails of Godwin, Paine, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Cabet, Pecquer, lesser and grander lights, preoccupy the historians, along with the most often short-lived utopian communities associated with some ofthem. The agitations, rebellions, riots, and struggles of artisans, wage laborers, peasants, and slave laborers are largely irrelevant to the tradition in the early nineteenth century and mostly constitute a background “noise” in this the era of the socialist writer. … Their work becomes a demonstration of the independence of socialist theory and social movements from one another. When once again they collide, in the 1840S, 1870S, and early 1900S, each had assumed forms and prerogatives only slightly tolerable to those of the other.

He returns Marx to his time and place, from 1848 to the rise of Bismarck in 1862. He traces the ambiguities of Marx and Engels’ positions on nationalism, and argues that they did not understand it, in the same way that they failed to understand racialism: that it was neither an aberration nor a stage, but something as determined by history as their world revolution failed to be. He argues that ideologies have in fact “helped to abort those social and historical processes believed to be necessary and inevitable; have catalyzed rebellions and revolutions in often unlikely circumstances and among unlikely peoples; and have assisted in extraordinary historical achievement where failure was “objectively” immanent.” [82]

Only then do we return to race:

In short, there were at least four distinct moments that must be apprehended in European racialism; two whose origins are to be found within the dialectic of European development, and two that are not:

1. the racial ordering of European society from its formative period, which extends into the medieval and feudal ages as “blood” and racial beliefs and legends.
2. the Islamic (i.e., Arab, Persian, Turkish, and African) domination of Mediterranean civilization and the consequent retarding of European social and cultural life: the Dark Ages.
3. the incorporation of African, Asian, and peoples of the New World into the world system emerging from late feudalism and merchant capitalism.
4. the dialectic of colonialism, plantocratic slavery, and resistance from the sixteenth century forward, and the formations of industrial labor and labor reserves.

It is now a convention to begin the analysis of racism in Western societies with the third moment; entirely ignoring the first and second and only partially coming to terms with the fourth. … In each instance, the root of the methodological and conceptual flaws is the same: the presumption that the social and historical processes that matter, which are determinative, are European. All else, it seems, is derivative.

Black Marxism is a refutation of such a framework.

Moments of Black struggle

And so on to rebellion and uprising in Africa and its diaspora flung across the world by the European slave trade. He writes:

Black radicalism, consequently, cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis. It is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black. Rather, it is a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western civilization: [97]

Robinson finds how this was ignored in a deep historical look at previous contacts between Blacks and whites, the shift of Blacks being seen as Islamic militants and soldiers to slaves and a very different set of stereotypes. From there he looks at the long history of the slave trade, mentioned earlier was the Italian trafficking of ‘Tartars’ and ‘Poles’ and ‘Cathays’, but now it has expanded into the extraordinary movement of tens of thousands of people in the trans-Atlantic trade. Thus we arrive at black radicalism. As he states at the opening of chapter 6:

However, Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or deculturated Blacks-men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.
This was the embryo of the demon that would be visited on the whole enterprise of primitive accumulation. [173]

And thus follows a whole splendid history of Black resistance through the ages, uprisings and revolts, some of the marron comunities you might have heard of like Palmares but many that you probably have not. It ends with Africa: Revolt at the Source. In delving deeper into the nature of the Black radical tradition, he finds in fact that “one note has occurred and recurred: the absence of mass violence.” [242], in contrast to the ‘massive and often indiscriminate’ brutality of the Europeans in quelling such revolts. He claims that such an absence shows that

This was a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.
It becomes clear, then, that for the period between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, it was an African tradition that grounded collective resistance by Blacks to slavery and colonial imperialism.

He goes on to argue for a particularly African tradition of granting primacy to the metaphysical, not the material. A tradition of resistance through collectivity. I’m not entirely convinced by the psychology of it, but there’s definitely something there. “They lived on their terms, they died on their terms, they obtained their freedom on their terms.” He argues that this cast doubt on the idea that capitalism was able to ‘penetrate and reform’ all social life, or strip life down to bare survival.

The Formation of the Black Intelligentsia:

Black Marxism then moves on to the third section to look at W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright. It is an immensely rich look at Du Bois, my favourite passage distilling some of the wealth in Black Reconstruction:

And in every instance, peasants and agrarian workers had been the primary social bases of rebellion and revolution. Nowhere, not even in Russia, where a rebellious urban proletariat was a fraction of the mobilized working classes, had a bourgeois social order formed a precondition for revolutionary struggle. Revolutionary consciousness had formed in the process of anti-imperialist and nationalist struggles, and the beginnings of resistance had often been initiated by ideological constructions remote from the proletarian consciousness that was a presumption of Marx’s theory of revolution. The idiom of revolutionary consciousness had been historical and cultural rather than the “mirror of production.” The oppositions that had struck most deeply at capitalist domination and imperialism had been those formed outside the logic of bourgeois hegemony. [324]

C.L.R. James loved fiction! Who knew. This section looks more at his critiques of Marxism, some interesting reflections on Black Jacobins and this interesting passage: “It implied (and James did not see this) that bourgeois culture and thought and ideology were irrelevant to the development of revolutionary consciousness among Black and other Third World peoples. It broke with the evolutionist chain in, the closed dialectic of, historical materialism.” [386]

And the section on Wright, so rich on how writing and experience and political consciousness fold together, there is so much here, I can’t sum up. There’s this:

For Wright, it was not sufficient for Black liberation that his people come to terms with the critique of capitalist society. He had observed: “Marxism is but the starting point. No theory of life can take the place of life.”55 As a critique of capitalist society, Marxism was necessary, of course, but it was ultimately an internal critique. The epistemological nature of historical materialism took bourgeois society on its own terms, that is, presuming the primacy of economic forces and structures.56 As such, the historical development from feudalism of the bourgeoisie as a class served as a logical model for the emergence of the proletariat as a negation of capitalist society. Wright appeared quite early to have understood this thesis as a fundamental error in Marxist thought. Even as early as 1937, he had begun to argue that it was necessary that Blacks transform the Marxist critique into an expression of their own emergence as a negation of Western capitalism.

Brilliant stuff on ideology and violence, the importance of experience, but I will let Robinson himself do the final summing up of the contributions of each to a valid theory of liberation:

Du Bois

It was, Du Bois observed, from the periphery and not the center that the most sustained threat to the American capitalist system had materialized. … Just as important for him, however, was the realization that the racism of the American “white” working classes and their general ideological immaturity had abnegated the extent to which the conditions of capitalist production and relations alone could be held responsible for the social development of the American proletariat. The collective and individual identities of American workers had responded as much to race as they had to class. The relations of production were not determinant. [448]

James

No revolutionary cadre, divorced from the masses, ensconced in state bureaucracy, and abrogating to itself the determination of the best interests of the masses, could sustain the revolution or itself. [449]

Wright

Wright evoked in his writings the language and experience of”ordinary” Black men and women. In this way he pressed home the recognition that whatever the objective forces propelling a people toward struggle, resistance, and revolution, they would come to that struggle in their own cultural terms. [449]

And my final quote which I believe deserves much thought:

Western Marxism, in either of its two variants-critical-humanist or scientific-has proven insufficiently radical to expose and root out the racialist order that contaminates its analytic and philosophic applications or to come to effective terms with the implications of its own class origins. As a result, it has been mistaken for something it is not: a total theory of liberation. [451]

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Roediger on How Race Survived US History

7986411This was quite a brilliant look at how and why the idea of race has developed in the United States. I haven’t read Roediger before so I can’t really compare it to his previous work, but given it’s written for a more popular audience, which I think is important, I did not mind the lack of footnotes. While it was reasonably short, I confess it took me a long time to get through and I’m not sure if that was because of the language or the weight of the ideas, but I didn’t regret a second.

It begins with a definition of race. For Roediger race is not a natural category, it is something new. It has been laboriously constructed to divide and sort people and thereby define how they relate to property, management, punishment and citizenship. The first of the two clearest examples of how this works is of course slavery, which took many different people of many different languages and cultures and defined them as black, as uncivilised and less than Europeans if not less than human, and only worthy of being slaves. The second is in the conquest and genocide of the Native Americans. Initially seen in the period of British rule as tribes with whom to ally with or fight against in the wars against other European powers, as a new nation began to create itself and push its boundaries they quickly became defined as red, as savages, as shiftless and lazy, and therefore worthy of being dispossessed of their lands. When they fought back? Jefferson himself argued shortly before his death that they be exterminated.

Through these stories we begin to come to grips with the two other key ideas about race contained in the book. The first is that of ‘whiteness as property’. Skin colour comes to define almost everything about an individual: where they live and work, what they can aspire to, the texture of their everyday life. When all else fails you can still cling to whiteness to put yourself above other people. You are a citizen. You cannot be enslaved. You are better than others. Your skin colour has a value, whiteness comes to be worth something in itself, something that distinguishes you and puts you above others. There was a time before this was true, when indentured servants and slaves escaped together, when the mixing of races was voluntary rather than from the rape of slaves. Laws made of whiteness something to be defended: banning interracial marriage, penalizing indentured servants who run in the company of a non-white, ruling that children share the freedom or the servitude of their mother, ruling people of color less than human and non-citizens. It was a combination of enticement and terror, whites either acted to their own benefit by buying into it or were punished severely for its transgression.

On the opposite side you found a law in Barbados from 1668: “An Act declaring the Negro-Slaves of this Island to be Real Estates.”

The second point is based on Stuart Hall (who I love). As Roediger says of him, he “acutely points out that racism emerges and is recreated from the imperatives of new sets of realities, not just from the bad habits of the past” [xiii]. The first key is that there are imperatives that drive this social construction of race, such as the desire for free labor to develop open land, the greed for land and expansion both in terms of speculation and profit, and to vent the building anger of the working white classes who are not finding in America their promised prosperity and demanding free land while threatening revolution. The second: that these imperatives do not just happen in some past time and continue on through inertia or habit (though the weight of the past cannot be treated lightly). The key is that racism still exists because new imperatives exist to ensure that it does. Until we understand them, we cannot end racism.

In a nutshell: “White supremacy persisted not only by working against the forces of freedom, of openness, and of economic rationality in US history, but also by working through them. Such complexities complicate the verb ‘survive’ in this book’s title, in that many of the forces pushing against the logic of racism at the same time validated, created, and recreated white supremacy.” [xv]

He goes on to explore and draw out these ideas through American history, looking at 4 key points where racism could have ceased, but didn’t. In very simplified terms:

How did it survive a revolution? Because honestly, it’s a bit ingenuous to revolt in the name of ideals of liberty and self-determination against British oppression while you yourself hold slaves. This is the classic ‘American dilemma’, which Roediger argues to be false. The revolution was funded by slavery, and Du Bois noted that the Constitution was in fact a huge blow to the slave liberation movement, Roediger sums it up succinctly: “[the constitution] made even indentured whites (their race unnamed) into “free persons”, it read Indians (who were named) out of citizenship, and it counted enslaved “other persons” (named neither racially nor in their servile position, by what one delegate called an “ashamed” constitutional convention) not as holders of political power, but as sources of such power for their own enslavers.” [51] Thus America becomes a white man’s country, welding together large and fractious class divisions through the imperative of expanding into Indian territory and maintaining race status.

How did it survive capitalism? Because even the Marxists argued that race would dissolve in the crucible of the working class. But in fact capital thrives on having different groups of workers in a hierarchy and in competition with each other, and it became policy to play these groups off one another. And slavery was not some pre-capitalist formation, it grew up with capitalism.

How did it survive jubilee and the abolition of slavery? That was the moment there was the most hope…but “Jubilee did not collapse under the weight of internal contradictions, but under extended assault.” The rise of the KKK, in one small town in Louisiana 60 republican party members were murdered during reconstruction. And then the fateful election where the Republicans gave up reconstruction all together and abandoned blacks to their fate for an uncontested election. Hayes almost certainly lost the popular vote, but he became president anyway.

How did it survive the immigration of those white Europeans most discriminated against? Through a process of coercion and aspiration and immense exploitation they slowly became accepted as white. In a sense they thus agreed to accept the rules of privilege rather than struggle against them.

And so it is still with us, Obama notwithstanding. The main point is “how unlikely it is that a force so longstanding, formative, and persistently recreated as white supremacy has been in United States history will be abolished by accident, as a result of the momentum of forces like capitalism or immigration that themselves have no anti-racist agenda.” [xv] We have to actively fight it, and to do so we have to understand it. This book takes us a great deal of the way I think. It is very US specific, while the drama of race has played out globally (as has the US role) and yet none of that is connected here which I found an absence. But this is an important book.

C.L.R. James on History and the Haitian Revolution

775985This is an in depth examination of Haiti and the splendour of its revolution, while at the same time James writes the history of places the way they should always be written, as playing a part on a world-wide stage, deeply influenced by and deeply influencing other countries. France’s wealthiest colony, San Domingo funded the French Revolution, it diverted a sizeable number of (and bested) British forces from the war against Napoleon for years, and in turn decimated the immense flotilla that Napoleon himself sent against it.

To my shame, and a history of willful ignoring by the world, I knew very little about the Haitian Revolution. I had never heard or read of the immense importance this small island played in ‘European affairs’. The other side? “The blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman.” [198] It makes the key point that to write of a colonial power in the absence of the influence of its colonies makes as little sense as to write of colonies without connecting that history to the struggles within the Colonial power. An insight still ignored by too many who split knowledge and importance, cause and effect, by geography. The slave trade and mercantilism connected the world and its events in ways rarely acknowledged with any depth.

James rarely rises above his text to make this point (or the others), he simply makes the connections in the way he writes history. This is a strength in terms of thinking through how history is studied, but frustrating also, as I wanted a bit more filling out of these more theoretical insights, and the ones that follow, but they must be pieced together.

He is a key thinker on race and colonialism, of course, and here we see him putting together how race was constructed, and it is clearly constructed in his account, and how race and class intersect. The first chapter is titled “The Property” followed by “The Owners”, beginning with the economic relationship of profit, but not ignoring the many factors at play in this complex society. On the class differences between the white settlers:

“This was the type for who race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves, of which they had few. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental. It was their all. In defence of it they would bring down the whole of their world.” [34]

“The higher bureaucrats, cultivated Frenchmen, arrived in the island without prejudice; and looking for mass support used to help the Mulattoes a little. And mulattoes and big whites had a common bond — property. Once the revolution was well under way the big whites would have to choose between their allies of race and their allies of property. They would not hesitate long.” [44]

On the mulattoes and free blacks:

“In a slave society the mere possession of personal freedom is a valuable privilege … Behind all this elaborate tom-foolery of quarteron, sacatra and marabou, was the one dominating fact of San Domingo society — fear of the slaves” [38]

“The advantages of being white were so obvious that race prejudice against the Negroes permeated he minds of the Mulattoes who so bitterly resented the same thing from the whites [42-43]

Mulatto instability lies not in their blood but in their intermediate position in society. [207]

This was no question of colour, but crudely a question of class, for those blacks who were formerly free stuck to the Mulattoes. Persons of some substance and standing under the old regime, they looked upon the ex-slaves as essentially persons to be governed.” [166]

A sophisticated analysis of race and class and political expediency, the idea of whiteness as privilege and property, a tale of how racial categorisations and boundaries were devised and then cemented into place. So impressive. A final quote on race and revolution:

Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrection shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.” [106]

Unknown - NYPL Digital Gallery
Unknown – NYPL Digital Gallery

Of course, most of this book is about how Toussaint alone, ex-slave, genius, of inexhaustible physical stamina, and incarnation of the desire for freedom, could have led the struggle to end slavery.

Which leads into James’s thinking on revolution itself, and I suppose that’s where I break with him most. What I most fundamentally disagree with are statements like this, on Dessalines’ betrayal of a fellow commander to the French just before he rose up in rebellion:

“It was a treacherous crime, but it was not treachery to the revolution.” [346]

It’s the old question of ends and means of course, and so what I find most chilling is this combination of ends justifying the means with an emphasis put on individual leadership. But that’s always what I’ve found most chilling about Lenin and Trotsky.

This is activist history, which I much appreciate. I think it’s vital that radical history should interrogate what went wrong and what we can learn, which C.L.R. James does openly (again thinking through race as it intersects with class):

Criticism is not enough. What should Toussaint have done? A hundred and fifty years of history and the scientific study of revolution begun by Marx and Engels, and amplified by Lenin and Trotsky, justify us in pointing to an alternative course. [282]

It was in method and not in principle, that Toussaint failed. The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. [283] … Whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware of every step, and explained carefully the exact position of the bourgeois servants of the Workers’ State, Toussaint explained nothing, and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies were being favoured at their expense. … and to shoot Moise, the black, for the sake of the whites was more than an error, it was a crime.” [284]

Toussaint’s error in this description was that he lost touch with the masses, which was a tactical mistake. It was not his bid for power. James plays down the constitution that appointed Toussaint governor for life with the power to name his own successor with the curious phrase, “Constitutions are what they turn out to be…”

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Jean-Jacques Dessalines

I suppose my own belief is that an individual will always go wrong, will always fail, will always make mistakes, will always be corrupted by power. This is a good portrait of a man who was undoubtedly most extraordinary, but I believe revolution has to be a collective activity to continue to be revolutionary. That seems to be just a political difference until you realise how little in this book there is about Dessalines or Moise or any of the other ex-slave leaders, what they thought and how they fought and how they worked together day in and day out with Toussaint (or not as the case was).

Of course, what I love about James is that he seems to be continuously interrogating his own orthodoxies and challenging his own statements, there’s a brilliant footnote on page 338 drawing parallels with a quote from George Lefebvre on the fact that we shall never know the real names of the leaders of the French Revolution, the ones who did most of the work and actually raised the masses far from the orations of the figureheads. James writes that “the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership.” [25], the question becomes what that leadership should look like and how it carries out its role.

My last caveat is just that James definitely seems to share some of the Western and white prejudice floating around, although more critical of it than most. He writes:

“It is probable that, looking at the wild hordes of blacks who surrounded him, his heart sank at the prospect of the war and the barbarism that would follow freedom…” [107]

Always he supports and rationalises Toussaint’s own defense, not to say courting, of the whites, his refusal to redistribute land or government position:

“It is Toussaint’s supreme merit that while he saw European
civilisation as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it conferred any moral superiority.” [271]

So again you see a very orthodox Marxist sense of civilisation as being European, the march of history in a material though not moral sense. The clear descriptions of not simply the amorality, but the true barbarism of the Europen slavo-owner, the stripping of that moral superiority is incredibly important however, and undeniably differentiates him from almost all other historians. I think there is plenty of places in the rest of the book where James arguably undercuts some of these same ideas on progress and civilisation as well to some extent.

A classic. Just a couple more choice quotes to end with, not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they are both punchy and provocative, and a final rumination on the character of Toussaint that I’m not quite sure I understand and am still pondering:

That calm confidence in its capacity to deceive is a mark of the mature ruling class. [294]

The rich are only defeated when running for their lives. [78]

But in a deeper sense the life and death are not truly tragic. Prometheus, Hamlet, Lear, Phedre, Ahab, assert what may be the permanent impulses of the human condition against the claims of organised society. They do this in the face of imminent or even certain destruction, and their defiance propels them to heights which make of their defeat a sacrifice which adds to our conception of human grandeur.

Toussaint is in a lesser category. His splendid powers do not rise but decline. Where formerly he was distinguished above all for his prompt and fearless estimate of whatever faced him, we shall see him…misjudging events and people, vacillating in principle…

The hamartia, the tragic flaw…was in Toussaint not a moral weakness. It was a specific error, a total miscalculation of the constituent events. [291]

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Foucault: Society Must Be Defended

Foucault - Society Must Be DefendedAh Foucault…There is a lot to grapple with in Society Must Be Defended, and I will do so below more for my memory in writing a dissertation than anything else, so be warned!

I love that it starts out with Foucault’s critique of Marx — there must be more out there I haven’t found in terms of that critique, but this really helped me think through the distinctions as it has always seemed to me that the two could well complement each other. I suppose they still can if broken into pieces and rejoined, but I have a much better sense of how different Foucault’s project is.

He argues that Marx, or any other similar over-arching theory such as psychoanalysis, “provided tools that can be used at the local level only when … the theoretical unity of their discourse is, so to speak, suspended, or at least cut up, ripped up, torn to shreds …” [6] Why is that, particularly in thinking about theories that have liberation as their goal? Because their effort to unify knowledge into a single framework of understanding is the problem, particularly the way that theoretical frameworks such as Marxism see themselves as a science. This sets up an ‘aspiration’ to power, where they decide what kinds of knowledge are legitimate and which are not with the aim of organising them, filtering them, putting them into hierarchies to create a body of ‘true’ knowledge. Foucault argues that this is done primarily to allow Marxism to benefit from the power that Western society has granted scientists and the scientific paradigm, rather than to actually create a Marxism that is scientific. Thus Marxism oppresses.

In opposition to Marxism’s (or psychoanalysis’s, or liberal economist’s or etc) subjugation of various knowledges, Foucault’s project is to liberate these various subjugated knowledges: “to set them free, or in other words to enable them to oppose and struggle against the coercion of a unitary, formal, and scientific theoretical discourse” [11]. His archeological work seeks to understand these formal scientific discourses, and his geneological work to liberate the local knowledges that have been subjugated by them.

Got it. Fundamentally antithetical to Marx in its theory, and I couldn’t ask for a clearer definition of the archeological v the geneological. (There’s also the fact that he ends the lectures with socialism is racism, but more on that later.)

One critique before moving on, Foulcault writes: “When I say “subjugated knowledges” I am also referring to a whole series of knowledges that have been disqualified as nonconceptual knowledges, as insufficiently elaborated knowledges: naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity.” I applaud this project of course. My problem with Foucault is always that he writes in a way that cannot engage in dialogue with these knowledges, but can only ‘unearth’ or worse ‘discover’ them. Please note the complete absence of the actual people who hold these ‘knowledges’, whatever those are when separated from their human beings, both from these lectures and presumably from these lecture rooms. Meh.

So onwards.

The question here is what is power, but as Foucault writes: “‘What is power?’ is obviously a theoretical question that would provide an answer to everything, which is just what I don’t want to do” [13]. Instead he wants to try and understand how it operates. He starts with liberalism and Marxism which he believe share the common feature of ‘economism’ stemming from a juridical understanding of power. In liberalism, “power is regarded as a right which can be possessed in the way one possesses a commodity” [13], it can be traded, taken, given up by political contract and etc. To take that to its conclusion, “There is therefore an obvious analogy, and it runs through all these theories, between power and commodities, between power and wealth” [13].

In Marxism, you have what Foucault calls the “‘economic functionality’ of power … to the extent that the role of power is essentially both to perpetuate the relations of production and to reproduce a class domination that is made possible by the development of the productive forces and the ways they are appropriated. In this case, political power finds its historical raison d’etre in the economy” [14].

He moves away from these economistic theories, exploring the ideas that “power is not something that is given, exchanged, or taken back, that it is something that is exercised and that it exists only in action,” and that “power is not primarily the perpetuation and renewal of economic relations, but that it is primarily, in itself, a relationship of force… Power is essentially that which represses.” [15]

And so we come to the crux of Foucault’s argument (and his difference from Marxism and liberalism) “rather than analyzing it [power] in terms of surrender, contract, and alienation, or rather than analyzing it in functional terms as the reproduction of the relations of production, shouldn’t we be analyzing it first and foremost in terms of conflict, confrontation, and war?

Here he inverts Clausewitz’s aphorism to ask whether ‘politics is the continuation of war by other means’, and continues to state the ideas he will explore through the rest of the book in a nutshell. If politics is the continuation of war by other means, then (my own underlining for emphasis):

This would imply three things. First, that power relations, as they function in a society like ours, are essentially anchored in a certain relationship of force that was established in and through war at a given historical moment that can be historically specified. And while it is true that political power puts an end to war and establishes or attempts to establish the reign of peace in civil society, it certainly does not do so in order to suspend the effects of power or to neutralize the disequilibrium revealed by the last battle of the war. According to this hypothesis, the role of [15] political power is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even the bodies of individuals. This is the initial meaning of our inversion of Clausewitz’s aphorism-politics is the continuation of war by other means. Politics, in other words, sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war. Inverting the proposition also means something else, namely that within this “civil peace,” these political struggles, these clashes over or with power, these modifications of relations of force-the shifting balance, the reversals-in a political system, all these things must be interpreted as a continuation of war. And they are interpreted as so many episodes, fragmentations, and displacements of the war itself. We are always writing the history of the same war, even when we are writing the history of peace and its institutions.

Inverting Clausewitz’s aphorism also has a third meaning: The final decision can come only from war, or in other words a trial by strength in which weapons are the final judges. It means that the last battle would put an end to politics, or in other words, that the last battle would at last-and I mean “at last”-suspend the exercise of power as continuous warfare. [16]

That’s a definition and a half, which seems to mean that the achievement of any victory against the status quo requires a battle of strength in which weapons are the final judge. I guess we’re all heading back to the mountains and jungles then, no?

But maybe he jests, because we’re only studying power after all.

The next chapter shows nicely how he turns things upside down. Where the traditional question as he sees it would ask “How does the discourse of truth establish the limits of power’s right?” Foucault would ask “What are the rules of right that power implements to produce discourses of truth? Or: What type of power is it that is capable of producing discourses of power that have, in a society like ours, such powerful effects?” It’s a good illustration, as are the following 5 methodological precautions, which stand as an excellent summary of what Foucault thinks power is, and what power is not (while also making him sound a bit like a Buddhist text). They in turn are summed up thus:

To sum up these five methodological precautions, let me say that rather than orienting our research into power toward the juridical edifice of sovereignty, State apparatuses, and the ideologies that accompany them, I think we should orient our analysis of power toward material operations, forms of subjugation, and the connections among and the uses made of the local systems of subjugation on the one hand, and apparatuses of knowledge on the other. [34]

This differentiation between state apparatus and material operations is carried through in his discussion of sovereignty and the discourse of rights that emerged in response to it. Foucault suggests that the mechanism of power shifted in the 17th and 18th centuries from essentially feudal monarchy to the kind of power discussed above, while the theorisations of struggle against it did not make the same shift. Whereas power ceased to be about land and goods and legal rights, the critics continued to treat it so while in fact it had become much more about control of time and labour, surveillance, and the mechanics of discipline. Hobbes, for example, in looking at contracts and rights as the foundation for sovereignty completely ignores, and actually hides the fact that power relations have nothing to do with right and everything to do with domination. It is rare you find groups like the Diggers who are able to articulate in some manner that this domination is the problem, rather than Norman lords instead of Saxon lords or what have you.

One of the key sections of the book is of course on race and racism, and a remarkably interesting and unique take on both really that is rich and provocative though I’m not sure what I think about it yet. In a highly simplified form if I understand the argument right: we have long had a concept of sovereignty as legitimate state-based power which words and history existed to praise and exalt to the exclusion (and obfuscation) of all other ideas. Slowly this shifted as a new discourse came into being, a counterhistory of dissent and revolution acknowledging the oppressed and the subjugated. As power and sovereignty was based on the conquest of one people by another (connecting back to Clausewitz’s aphorism though it somehow feels far distant), this took the form of race struggle, a binary struggle of peoples in which everyone was on either one side or the other, their side defining their discourses of truth. In the 16th century what was initially seen as race struggle slowly became seen as class struggle in these counterhistories, and so race began to be used by the counterhistory arising in opposition to the original counterhistories (you can see why this is difficult but this new counterhistory is in the service of those with power). It was reformulated with medical and biological meaning, and as Foucault states: “Whereas the discourse of races, of the struggle between races, was a weapon to be used against the historico-political discourse of Roman sovereignty, the discourse of race (in the singular) was a way of turning that weapon against those who had forged it, of using it to preserve the sovereignty of the State” [81]. Essentially it sought to preserve power and centralise/control discourse through defining the State in terms of its need for protection against the other, the subrace, the enemy. Thus, he argues, racism is only a stage in this larger discourse of race struggle.

He returns to race in the last lecture, which introduces the idea of biopolitics — a term I’ve always found very off-putting but never mind. Essentially it is a new function of government from “sovereignty’s old right — to take life or let live” to “the power to “make” live and “let” die” [241]. It is the State in its new function of measuring and monitoring, nurturing and manipulating the mass of the population for its own benefit rather than simply disciplining individual bodies. This new form of politics does not replace the old, rather it complements and articulates with it in a highly insidious fashion primarily through institutions and specialised scientific knowledges and the development of norms to which individuals and general society must live up to.

Within this new method of governing, racism becomes first, a way to fragment and divide the population for improved control. That’s easy to understand, I’m not sure I fully grasp what follows. In a war situation, it is easy to legitimate that the other ‘people’ must die in order that our ‘people’ may live, thereby giving the state expanded power over life and death. Racism recreates this latitude granted under conditions of war for a regime of biopolitics: “in other words, killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race. There is a direct connection between the two. In a normalizing society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable.” [256] So perhaps that makes sense of this:

And we can also understand why racism should have developed in modern societies that function in the biopower mode; we can understand why racism broke out at a number of privileged moments, and why they were precisely the moments when the right to take life was imperative. Racism first develops with colonization, or in other words, with colonizing genocide. If you are functioning in the biopower mode, how can you justify the need to kill people, to kill populations, and to kill civilizations? By using the themes of evolutionism, by appealing to a racism.

This of course changes war as well, “it is not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary, but of destroying the enemy race”. It makes more sense of Nazism and Stalinism. And I don’t think that it is trying to take the place of other ideas and meanings of race as they lived and experienced, but rather goes deeper adding a new dimension:

here, we are far removed from the ordinary racism that takes the traditional form of mutual contempt or hatred between races. We are also far removed from the racism that can be seen as a sort of ideological operation that allows States, or a class, to displace the hostility that is directed toward [them), or which is tormenting the social body, onto a mythical adversary. I think that this is something much deeper than an old tradition, much deeper than a new ideology, that it is something else. The specificity of modern racism, or what gives it its specificity, is not bound up with mentalities, ideologies, or the lies of power. It is bound up with the technique of power, with the technology of power. It is bound up with this, and that takes us as far away as possible from the race war and the intelligibility of history. We are dealing with a mechanism that allows biopower to work. So racism is bound up with the workings of a State that is obliged to use race, the elimination of races and the purification of the race, to exercise its sovereign power. The juxtaposition of-or the way biopower functions through-the old sovereign power of life and death implies the workings, the introduction and activation, of racism. And it is, I think, here that we find the actual roots of racism. [258]

It is this much wider more difficult idea of racism that allows Foucault to say “Socialism was a racism from the outset” [261], contentious words. He argues that because socialism never recognised biopower as a form of control, and the role that racism has played in that, it has essentially recreated (or sought to recreate) these same controls even while changing the social structure. That I can see and is useful in thinking about what happened in Russia, I’m not sure I agree that it is endemic in socialist thought per se in the following way:

Whenever, on the other hand, socialism has been forced to stress the problem of struggle, the struggle against the enemy, of the elimination of the enemy within capitalist society itself, and when, therefore, it has had to think about the physical confrontation with the class enemy in capitalist society, racism does raise its head, because it is the only way in which socialist thought, which is after all very much bound up with the themes of biopower, can rationalize the murder of its enemies. [262]

There’s so much more here, primarily on the practice and discourses of history, and on the nation. I have to change my rating to 5 stars because while I get so frustrated with Foucault and continue to question the utility of his work to practical struggle, it is undoubtedly full of ideas and questions well worth thinking over, and this is definitely a book I’ll be returning to. I am certain I will find an entirely new set of brilliant/problematic statements to ponder over, which is impressive.

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.