Tag Archives: class

Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power

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

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

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

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

The second chapter: The Invisible Wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And these words which provide food for much thought:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Angela Davis: Women, Race, Class

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

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

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

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

Davis writes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on intersections of race, class and gender…


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.]

GM destroys the American Middle Class

Well. I am as amazed as you are to actually find this stated out loud, I am rather leery of it in fact, it seems something that is far too good (well, good only in terms of my research) to be possibly true. And I can’t be the only one to have found this buried deep in a rather bad book called Why GM Matters, but here is the exact quote from Rick Wagoner, (ex) CEO of General Motors:

The toughest question I ever asked Wagoner was, Did you have to destroy the American middle class to save the company? “If you look at the circumstances we’re facing today, if we hadn’t done that, it would have been very dire for all three of the U.S.-based auto businesses,” he responded. “So, unfortunately, the answer is yes.”

So I was originally quite struck with a bit of anger…but what in the book didn’t make me angry? And then of course, a friend pointed out that as a quote it is really quite absurd, though typical of some good old-fashioned GM megalomania. And as an attitude it is stunning. So what is the greater good of such a business really, if not the jobs it provides? Apart from retaining American industrial capacity? Because surely there must be a cheaper way to do that than giving such a company billions of worker’s dollars…