Tag Archives: racism

Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag

In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney's representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney’s representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Golden GulagGolden Gulag is written by an activist trying to answer questions asked by mothers fighting for the lives of their children in prison, and grappling with the theory behind her work, so you know I loved it. I found it quite challenging though, and I’m still thinking about how she frames the political economy of prisons and how that intersects with race.

In a nutshell, she argues that “…prisons are partial geographical solutions to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis” [26]. She draws on the work of Hall and Schwartz in how she thinks about and defines crisis: “Crisis occurs when the social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the pre-existing system of social relations” a very technical definition I must confess. But essentially it means that change has to happen, the system of social relations or the social formation must shift. She argues that one way (maybe the only way, I’m out of my depth but I imagine one way) for society to find itself in such a crisis is through the build-up of surpluses. Capitalism depends on a cycle of accumulation of goods and their sale at a profit, it goes into crisis when goods simply accumulate. This crisis is not simply economic, but also political and social. In examining the political economy of California, she find four key surpluses provoking crisis. The state could have chosen different ways to resolve these surpluses, but instead they chose to embark on the largest prison building program the world has ever seen.

So this is the crux, the four surpluses are (in highly simplified form)

finance capital: investors specialising in public debt were having a hard time getting bonds through, they had money and couldn’t lend it to a very large and wealthy government

land: given drought, debt and development, farmers have increasingly been withdrawing irrigated land from production – ceasing to invest in irrigation infrastructure as it is no longer economically feasible. In addition there are large amounts of surplus land in and around depressed towns throughout California, together with high unemployment.

labour: manufacturing left, and hit poor communities of colour the hardest. The increasing number of prisoners has kept pace, and in many ways controlled, the rising levels of unemployment, and the highest percentage of prisoners comes from those areas with the highest levels of unemployment

state capacity: with the tax revolt that took place in California in the 1970s, the state was forced into crisis by lack of funds and lack of mandate to redistribute wealth through programs and services, while still maintaining it’s bureaucratic architecture. The State needed some other way to maintain that architecture.

And thus, prisons. More of them than anyone has ever seen. The rest of the book is looking at why these surpluses resulted in this particular solution.

It’s certainly a deeper and more complex argument than many of the prevailing ideas that she outlines: crime went up, we cracked down; drug epidemic; structural changes in employment opportunities; privatization of prison functions and the search for profit; provision of rural jobs and development; reform. It accounts for all of these things really, drawing them all into a more complex story.

She also draws on Hall and Gramsci to analyse perceptions and changing definitions of crime. I like her take on ideology:

Such change is not just a shift in ideas or vocabulary or frameworks, but rather in the entire structure of meanings and feelings (the lived ideology, or “taking to heart”) through which we actively understand the world and place our actions in it (Williams 1961). Ideology matters along its entire continuum, from common sense (“where people are at”) to philosophies (where people imagine the coherence of their understanding comes from: Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Marx, Malcolm X, the market).” [243]

Her invocation of race is also interesting:

As the example of racism suggests, institutions are sets of hierarchical relationships (structures) that persist across time (Martinot 2003) undergoing, as we have seen in the case of prisons, periodic reform. Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. [28]

I have often seen this quoted, but usually in addition to other definitions. It is curious that she relates it solely to premature death, I’m trying to wrap my head around that, why you would limit it to that, whether that doesn’t leave important things out. I suppose life and death is the most important question after all. She also includes a chapter that tries to grapple with the lived experience of how such a political economy of prisons and race intersects, what that means to people over and above it’s roots in political economy:

From the mothers’ vantage point, we can see how prison expansion and opposition to it are part of the long history of African-Americans and others whose struggle for liberation in the racial state has never achieved even a fully unfettered capacity to be free labor. The development of political responses to legal dilemmas indicates how profoundly incapacitation deepens, rather than solves, social crisis. This chapter … personalizes and generalizes the morally intolerable (Kent 1972) to highlight objective and subjective dimensions of the expansion of punishment and prisons, the demise of the weak welfare state, and the capacity of everyday people to organize and lead themselves. [185]

I like how this is done, but found it hard to connect it theoretically to the sections that preceded it on political economy, it almost felt like a world and story apart. But that might be a reflection of my own experience in how hard it is to bring these two worlds together.

I am also thinking through her comments on activism and scholarship, activism and power. She uses Gramsci in a way I hadn’t thought of and like immensely:

On the contrary, in scholarly research, answers are only as good as the further questions they provoke, while for activists, answers are as good as the tactics they make possible. [27]

grassroots organization should be the kind that “renovates and makes critical already-existing activities” of both action and analysis to build a movement (Gramsci 1971: 330-31)

Ordinarily, activists focus on taking power, as though the entire political setip were really a matter of “it” (Structure) versus “us” (agncy). But if the structure-agency opposition isn’t how things really work, then perhaps politics is more complicated, and therefore open to more hopeful action. People can and do make power through, for example, developing capacities in organizations. But that’s not enough, becayse all an individual organization can do is tweak Armageddon. When the capacities resulting from purposeful action are combined toward ends greater than mission statements or other provisional limits, powerful alignments begin to shake the grounds. In other words, movement happens. [248]

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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.

We are all Oscar Grant

Oscar Grant was shot in the back of the head by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009. He was lying face down on the ground at an Oakland train station. The shooting was captured on multiple mobile phones and is all over youtube, you can see some of the footage here, though I warn you, it’s graphic.

The officer claimed he thought he was pulling his taser and not his gun. And last week the courts convicted him of involuntary manslaughter, with a sentence of two to four years, which is less than the five-year mandatory sentence for crack possession. Arnold Schwarzenegger begged for calm, and while some didn’t listen, it is saddening that the protests weren’t bigger, riots certainly seems far too strong a word.

Perhaps people just don’t believe change is possible. The names of 2000 people killed by law enforcement in the 1990’s alone are shown below as part of the Stolen Lives project.

index

Extreme cases like those of Rodney King and Amadou Diallo are well known, but there are thousands of others. Amnesty International has cited the United States for multiple violations, as has Human Rights Watch. And police brutality against people of colour is intertwined with the shocking statistics on incarceration in the United States, where 2.2 million people, over one in every hundred Americans, is behind bars. One out of every 9 African American men between 20 and 34 are in prison.

From slavery to the institutional racism and lynchings of Jim Crow to the violent repression of the Civil Rights movement, there is an unbroken chain leading to today’s ugly statistics. Self protection against police brutality was one of the organizing principles of the Black Panthers, hundreds of them were incarcerated, and George Jackson and Fred Hampton among others were killed by police. Many continue as political prisoners today, Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Angola 3 among them. But they are still fighting, we can do no less.

WallaceWilkersonWoodfox

[also posted at www.brightwide.com]

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Nicholas Dreystadt, Cadillacs & African-Americans

So. I have always vaguely wondered about the rather unique love-affair between African-Americans and the Cadillac. I stumbled across this story of Nicholas Dreystadt in a book called The Chrome Colossus by Ed Cray, while doing some research for my dissertation…

It is 1932, and GM is actually at the point of abandoning the Cadillac forever…what was on the cutting board? This beauty of an automobile:

Nicholas Dreystadt, head of the Cadillac division, breaks into the meeting

As Cadillac service manager, Dreystadt had earlier discovered that the car was very popular with the small black bourgeoisie of successful entertainers, doctors and ghetto businessmen. A surprising number brought Cadillacs in for service–surprising because corporate policy was not to sell Cadillacs to blacks at all; the Cadillac was reserved for the white prestige market. “But the wealthy Negro,” business critic Peter F. Drucker recalled, “wanted a Cadillac so badly that he paid a substantial premium to a white man to front for him in buying one. Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that a Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other of the outward signs of worldly success.”

Overwhelmed by Dreystadt’s audacity and bemused by his proposal, the committee gave him eighteen months in which to develop the Negro market. By the end of 1934, Derystadt had the Cadillac division breaking even, and by 1940 had multplied sales tenfold… (Cray 279)

It is one side of the story to be sure, a comfortable retelling of an atrocious racism prevalent in this most American of institutions. And all of America. There must be so much more to it of course, but what a fascinating glimpse from a very corporate angle. Turned around, in spite of the fury it inspires, it seems to say that African-Americans saved the Cadillac from extinction. What did they save again?

God damn. I know it’s conspicuous consumption, but I continue utterly smitten with the craftsmanship and beauty of something such as this.

But there is more. I continue reading and 50 pages later I find this story from the WWII years:

Dreystadt had accepted a contract to produce delicate aircraft gyroscopes. despite mutterings on the fourteenth floor that the job was a killer and needed skilled hands unavailable. The dissent turned to outrage when Dreystadt and his personnel manager, Jim Roche, hired 2,000 overage black prostitutes from Paradise Valley–uneducated, untrained, but willing workers. Dreystadt hired the madams too, blithely explaining, “They know how to manage the women.”

Dreystadt himself machined a dozen gyroscopes, then produced a training film detailing the step-by-step assembly process. Within weeks the women were surpassing quotas, and the outrage turned to chagrin on West Grand Boulevard. Jokes about Cadillac’s “red-light district” angered Dreystadt. “These women are my fellow workers, and yours,” he insisted. “They do a good job and respect their work. Whatever their past, they are entitled to the same respect as any one of our associates.”

Dreystadt knew he would have to replace these women at war’s end–returning veterans had job preference, and the United Auto Workers, heavily white male with a southern-states orientation, wanted the women out of the plant. “Nigger-lover” and “whore-monger” Dreystadt fought to keep some, pleading, “For the first time in their lives, these poor wretches are paid decently, work in decent conditions, and have some rights. And for the first time they have some dignity and self-respect. It’s our duty to save them from being again rejected and despised.” The union stood adamant.

When the women were laid off, a number committed suicideĀ  rather than return to the streets. Nick Dreystadt grieved, “God forgive me. I have failed these poor souls.” (Cray 318-319)

Again, only one side and a highly problematic retelling of what is truly a remarkable story by any measure. And again, racism in bucketfuls. But who was this Nick Dreystadt really? And where are the other sides of this story to be found? I shall be looking, no fear…

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Ford, and confusion in right wing rhetoric

Even among the many books on economics and transnational corporations that I do not agree with, there are some among them that are at least rationally argued and relatively factual. But I rather enjoy when they are not, it allows me to stay awake through the boredom, mumbling angrily at the page and marking exclamation points and question marks in the margins. And their own contradictions and prejudices always come to the fore…a few choice quotes from my recent favourite:

Ford also expanded mechanical parts manufacturing in the United Kingdom (such activities are less sensitive to labor disruptions) and body and assembly in Germany, where the work force was more efficient.

Ah, racial…er…national profiling? Grand generalizations? You have to love them, especially when they’re tossed into the argument like olives of unknown provenance into a greek salad.

Increasingly, these disagreements within the US Big Three made it difficult for the US government to intervene effectively in their bargaining with the Mexican government.

Long live free trade! I wonder who was more vexed, the big three or the US government?

The UAW’s failure to negotiate better with the auto makers that had recently established in the United States also accounted for the disadvantage that the US Big Three face vis-a-vis their foreign rivals…

Is this the present or the past, who can tell? One thing I know is that it’s those damn unions again, always letting the home country’s corporations down…but I suppose if you can’t blame the workers for not kicking some Japanese ass, who can you blame for the American corporation’s failure?

The maquiladoras became the most visible symbols of the threats that low-wage countries could pose to jobs…

Again, if you can’t blame those greedy low-wage countries for the threats against jobs, who can you blame? Oh wait…

US government policies that fostered automotive production in maquiladora plants also altered the negotiating dynamic between the Mexican government and the US vehicle producers. The US auto makers learned about the low costs and the high quality of automotive production in Mexico, and the Mexican government learned about the benefits of rationalizing Mexican automotive production on a North American basis.

This is an extraordinary thing to say by any standard (unless you’re a patriotic elementary school teacher reading directly from a company brochure). It is especially extraordinary if you’re aware of the fact, as the author states earlier in the book, that Ford opened its first Mexican factory in 1925 and GM and Chrysler in 1935. And all of them had been operating there continuously for decades.

Sadly enough, the ongoing silliness of this right-wing hodgepodge of contradictory imperialist and free-trade theoriesĀ  kept me entranced until the very end! So I have now read a book in its entirety that I can never use as a source in good conscience, though I shall certainly find some of the original sources useful. I could have just read the bibliography…I suppose I know who has had the last laugh.

Du Bois, the Black Panthers, and the lumpen

Came over to Norwalk today to hang out with Meo…the parents of small children really do fall asleep early! To get here of course, it takes two trains, I almost miss taking the train. The blue line was actually full of camaraderie today, and the blind guy who always comes on the train to ask for change actually took out one of his fake eyes. He did quite well. And I got some reading in.

I was reading Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. – The Future of the Race. I picked it up in the library on a whim. It is Gates and West essentially reacting to W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay “The Talented Tenth.” And I believe I read this in college, when I was just angry and not politicized. It shocked me reading it again, Du Bois says:

“Can the masses of the Negro people be in any possible way more quickly raised than by the effort and example of this aristocracy of talant and character? Was there ever a nation on God’s fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and always will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground.”

Which is, of course, pretty much the absolute antithesis of everything I believe. They idea of anyone deciding who is worth saving actually makes me want to throw something. I do not believe that “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its great men.” Or even women for that matter. Of course, I suppose Du Bois makes sense if you conserve the framework of capitalism.

Funny that for Du Bois, change comes from the top tenth. For Marx, the middle-lower bit, the industrial workers…was it ever as high as 60%? In a world with ever more lumpens the workers are shrinking I believe. And for the Black Panthers it was the bottom…how many are at the bottom now? 20%, 40%, 50%? It all depends on your definition I suppose. I wonder about Mao’s peasants, and who comprises the anarchist’s masses. I’m reading Elaine Brown’s autobiography now as well…it’s big and hardcover and not at all portable. And it is astonishing.

I don’t really have anything thought out today, these are just things I was thinking on the train.

Obama’s Inauguration

I cried.

I know, it really surprised me too. Cynical and jaded and self-deprecatingly furious, I have little to no faith in this country’s electoral process or government. I have no hope, instead of hoping I work hard to try and make this world a little better, a little more just. I don’t know that I can hope in a man who raised more money from corporations than Bush did, who played the political game so well, who managed to rise to the top of this great corrupt and broken system of ours. I listened to his speech and we’re still at war with terror. And it’s definitely true that there will be no structural change without immense pressure in the streets and in congress, if there’s even a chance of structural change…And I don’t know why Rick Warren was up there at all.

Even so. Aretha Franklin got up and sang and she was radiant and for the first time she wasn’t the token loved pop star up there for diversity…for the first time the mall was full of black people who were happy…for the first time. Ever. March after march, protest after protest, centuries of change grinding along from slavery with racism never really yielding…and I don’t think it has yielded but yesterday meant something. And I cried. Last year in Dublin a reporter asked me if I thought America could ever elect a black president and my answer was no. No way. And America proved me wrong and it was beautiful yesterday when Aretha was singing the way only she can to our black President and his family, and millions of people watching and all of them crying from pure…I don’t even know what the emotion is. Happiness, disbelief that this could even be happening but this amazing knowledge in your stomach that it really is, something deep that comes from years of struggle and pain and injustice and the brilliant unexpected rightness of this family standing there. Taking the place of the Bush family who represent everything that is white dynastic power and corruption in this country. I don’t have words for it, but it was something profound. And I appreciated that Obama mentioned that 60 years ago his family wouldn’t have been served in DC’s restaurants, and most of all I loved Reverend Lowery’s speech, acknowledging that yesterday represented only a beautiful new beginning to the work for the world we are all trying to create:

“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — (laughter) — when yellow will be mellow — (laughter) — when the red man can get ahead, man — (laughter) — and when white will embrace what is right.

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.

AUDIENCE: Amen!

REV. LOWERY: Say amen —

AUDIENCE: Amen!”

I’m glad I got to spend the morning with Gilda and Gary, and end the day with drinks and music at Tafarai’s party with so many folks I haven’t seen for a long time…what a day. And of course, now is when the real work begins again…I don’t disagree with any of my friends in their cynacism or fears for the future. But something did change yesterday.