But the question is always this, at least when we talk about Black movements — relevant to whom? For what purpose? Where is the strategy other than demanding to stay alive, and then going into electoral politics as a moderate to progressive Democrat?
When James Baldwin visited San Francisco in 1963 to film a documentary about U.S. racism, he encountered neighborhoods in turmoil: the city was seizing properties through eminent domain, razing them, and turning them over to private developers. Part of a massive, federal urban renewal program, nearly 5,000 families—no fewer than 20,000 residents, the majority of them people of color—were being displaced from rental homes, private property, and businesses in the Western Addition neighborhoods. Baldwin spoke to a Black teenager who had just lost his home and watched as his neighborhood was destroyed. He told Baldwin: “I’ve got no country. I’ve got no flag.” Soon after, Baldwin would say: “I couldn’t say you do. I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does.”
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods.
That young man was one of millions of Americans, disproportionately of color, who lost homes and communities through the federal urban renewal program. In discussing its human costs—colossal in scope and yet profoundly intimate—Baldwin helped popularize a phrase common in Black neighborhoods: urban renewal meant “Negro removal.” To steal people’s homes, Baldwin understood, was to shred the meaning of their citizenship by destroying their communities. And “the federal government,” he said, “is an accomplice to this fact.”
The 1921 Tulsa massacre and redlining have pierced the popular consciousness in recent years as ways that, through murder and markets, Black communities were destroyed. Curiously, urban renewal has so far remained on the margins of these discussions. Yet that program, in operation between 1949 and 1974, constituted one of the most sweeping and systematic instances of the modern destruction of Black property, neighborhoods, culture, community, businesses, and homes. At its peak in the mid-1960s, urban renewal displaced a minimum of 50,000 families annually—a 1964 House of Representatives report estimated the figure at more like 66,000.
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods. Federal subsidies went to more than 400 cities, suburbs, and towns, supported more than 1,200 projects, and displaced a minimum of 300,000 families—perhaps some 1.2 million Americans. While Black Americans were just 13 percent of the total population in 1960, they comprised at least 55 percent of those displaced. And, while we tend to remember urban renewal as a big-city program, pursued by titans such as Robert Moses in New York, the vast majority of projects were carried out in cities of 50,000 residents or fewer. These were small cities such as Greenville, North Carolina, where 207 families of color and 11 white families were displaced; Tupelo, Mississippi, where 217 families of color and 31 white families were displaced; and Demopolis, Alabama, where 55 families of color and 7 white families were displaced. Urban Renewal was spread as widely as today’s marches for social justice.
Today, as racially disparate rates of eviction, police violence, and capital flight raise urgent questions about the right to live in safe, thriving communities, a more complete reckoning with urban renewal’s record of destruction is necessary. Fortunately, because urban renewal was federally funded, Washington collected data about how projects unfolded; these records also allow us to reconstruct the many costs of urban renewal. Thanks to a recent comprehensive digital mapping project which I helped spearhead at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, it’s now possible for the first time to visualize how hundreds of urban renewal projects displaced tens of thousands of Americans. While private–public practices such as redlining help explain the staggering racial wealth gap, the history of urban renewal, though no less materially devastating, involved kinds of theft that are more difficult to quantify—thefts that amount to the destruction of entire lifeworlds. And, the political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today. Like redlining, profit— in this case, returns derived from boosting property taxes— continues to define the state’s interest in destabilizing Black neighborhoods.
The political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today.
As the United States emerged from World War II, many cities faced a housing crunch. Whites policed the racial boundaries of their neighborhoods, often violently. And so as greater numbers of African Americans migrated north in search of manufacturing jobs and to escape the South’s more formal system of Jim Crow, Black neighborhoods quickly became overcrowded. Residents were often subjected to exorbitant rents in derelict housing owned by slumlords. Families and friends boarded together. Others sublet rooms to meet extortionate rents. Segregated neighborhoods in northern cities became so crowded that many schools operated in two shifts—half of the students went in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. “Blight” was the term policymakers used to describe the worsening conditions structured by these national practices of urban segregation.
Meanwhile, city budgets teetered on the edge of fiscal cliffs, from which they had only just clawed their way back up. The economic exuberance of the 1920s had produced an urban and suburban “land boom,” as the Wall Street Journal put it—the overheated, last gasp of a period “of great and extended prosperity.” Cities fueled this speculation by taking on staggering levels of debt to support the infrastructure that made private property profitable. Net annual additions to municipal debt between 1923 and 1931 averaged over $845 million (or more than $13.5 billion in 2020 dollars), or enough, as one contemporary analyst accurately predicted, “to keep municipal finance in a turmoil for two decades or more.”
When the bottom fell out of the stock market, the consequences quickly ricocheted through urban land markets and city budgets. Property values plummeted, and tax delinquency skyrocketed. In the Great Depression, some 1,200 local or county governments defaulted or went bankrupt.
The New Deal helped stabilize the situation. Later, defense conversion and contracting in World War II injected desperately needed capital into cities. But cities still held considerable debt, and the New Deal’s public works agenda was not without its own considerable costs—while federally subsidized labor constructed many bridges, libraries, schools, and sewage plants, these public assets had also become new line items on municipal budgets. Moreover, as the Depression shuttered factories and the Great Migration brought new residents, officials worried that property tax revenues would never rise to meet these new burdens.
As early as the late 1930s, New Dealers were increasingly concerned that city budgets were fiscal time bombs that threatened to explode the entire progressive project. And they saw that local governments were already using New Deal works programs to remedy the situation. As Mabel Walker, an urban analyst, noted in 1938, in New York City, federally subsidized works projects had begun “siphoning off [the] slum population,” constructing affordable housing “in cheaper areas,” and might even facilitate the delivery of cleared land to “higher income groups” and “business and industry.” The result, she wrote, was “in effect a gigantic subsidy or bonus handed out to property holders in these slum areas” who could never have assembled enough private capital to reset urban land markets themselves. By 1938 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia estimated the city had torn down or gutted nearly 9,000 buildings. In Philadelphia federal support for clearance subsidized the demolition of 8,328 structures, releasing land with an estimated value of $11.5 million.
Federal leaders struck on the idea of using urban renewal to harness this haphazard redevelopment of cities and turn it into a more coherent, national program of planning, redevelopment, and housing. They also recognized that the federal government’s budget overwhelmingly depended on capital generated in cities in the form of confiscatory, progressive corporate and personal income tax rates. As one of urban renewal’s federal designers put it, short of “a nation-wide overhauling of our traditional arrangements for taxation and public expenditures,” “it seems only fair that the federal government should aid the local governments to the extent necessary to cover their urgently needed outlays.” Federally subsidized slum clearance and redevelopment could put cities back on the path to fiscal independence—and the federal government wouldn’t have to share much of its precious income tax revenue.
Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment.
World War II delayed the initiative, but the Housing Act of 1949 set aside significant financing to enable cities to build public housing and to demolish neglected, overcrowded neighborhoods, and antiquated or abandoned industrial properties. As in a number of New Deal programs, the subsidies would be offered in the form of bonded debt, which, after cities delivered a matching share, the federal government would retire. The goal with such a convoluted system of finance was to get capital moving through private financial institutions and to plausibly deemphasize the role of the national government. These were local programs.
This growing mishmash of priorities was a hallmark of midcentury liberalism, which forged cross-cutting relationships with many different interest groups. Some policymakers, for instance, worked closely with real estate interests and business groups and their allies in city halls. Together they hungered for the potential bonanza of private redevelopment and city property tax yields. Others were aligned with progressive public housing advocates or worked closely to cultivate the support of African American community leaders. When he signed the 1949 bill, a signature piece of his Fair Deal agenda, President Harry S. Truman heralded a new front in the war for civil rights: securing a decent home for all Americans. Early on, Black clergy and civil rights activists were among the initiatives’ most hopeful supporters.
Congress soon confronted the reality that few local governments were pursuing the program. Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment. But the act’s regulations mandated that housing projects were to be prioritized.
Rather than amend the legislation to offer greater incentives for housing, a revised version of the legislation, the Housing Act of 1954, created the federal Urban Renewal Administration, ceding to the interests of commercial lobbyists and mayors. The act loosened housing mandates and so unleashed a goldmine of federally financed business-oriented clearance and development.
Many of the developments that resulted are among their city’s most iconic. New York City’s Lincoln Square, anchored by Lincoln Center, displaced at least 4,000 families, many of whom were recent arrivals from Puerto Rico. (One imagines some of those residents had been displaced from Puerto Rico, too, where the federal government funded renewal projects in some 30 municipalities, displacing at least 10,000 families.) Pedro Quinones protested displacement by joining a movement called Save Our Homes. As he correctly understood, the program “has come to New York to ‘clean up’ minority groups.” But “we are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. . . . We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants to have what are called ‘better class people’ there.”
Other projects underwrote the emergence of the “meds and eds” economy that fuel so many cities today. The University of Chicago displaced more than 4,000 families in a series of projects. Clearance and construction of Oklahoma City’s University Medical Center displaced at least 700, disproportionately African American families. And Detroit’s massive Medical Center displaced around 2,000 families, again disproportionately of color. That campus now anchors the city’s fashionable Midtown neighborhood. The University of Pennsylvania spurred projects that displaced more than 700 African American families and a thriving Black business district. That community, called Black Bottom, had been owned or occupied by African Americans since at least the Civil War. Many of its men were Union Army veterans.
“We are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants ‘better class people’ there.”
Just counting families displaced, however, misses important dimensions of what made this so devastating. While they may not have been thriving in the terms that counted on municipal balance sheets, and while many residents were in dire economic straits, the informal, unplanned mix of public and private, business and culture often amounted to thriving communities. In New York, for instance, more than 600 businesses sat within the Lincoln Square project footprint, businesses that defined the commercial and cultural life of the neighborhood: diners and luncheonettes, candy stores and beauty parlors, a “Chinese goods” store, photography studios, a detective agency, and a funeral parlor.
For displaced businesses, federal law authorized a $2,500 reimbursement for “moving and fixtures” (the ceiling was ultimately abolished, but payments were still at local officials’ discretion). But business owners protested that the figure was a pittance compared to the costs associated with moving, reopening, and lost revenue in the meantime. Small businesses operated on vanishingly slim margins. One pharmacist estimated the cost of relocating and reopening was more like $20,000. Many displaced businesses simply closed down. These dynamics played out in small cities such as Rome, Georgia, too. Callie Martin had owned and operated Let’s Eat Café in the city’s cleared Black neighborhood. After packing up, moving, and reopening, she was barely scraping by. “I was able to give work to two people,” she told the local paper in 1971. “But now I’m just working by myself and not really making ends meet.” Renewal “really caused me to lose a decent living.” Hubert Holland, who lost his barber shop was clearer: “The way I see it, they destroyed the Negro businesses, what little they had.” Two years after clearance, just four of Rome’s 16 displaced Black businesses had reopened. As of 1963, some 39,399 businesses were reported to have been displaced through urban renewal alone (the federal highway program displaced thousands more). Urban renewal would run for another 11 years.
The vast majority of families displaced were renters: a 1968 study found that two thirds of all “relocatees” and three quarters of non-white families displaced were renters. While their landlords—slumlords in many cases—would be compensated for the loss of their property (and some quite handsomely), very often the families that actually lived in these buildings were not. Instead, federal statutes entitled these citizens to “relocation assistance”—vague guidelines that local authorities assist displaced families with finding temporary housing. The legislation “authorized” local governments to offer up to $300 in relocation grants to displaced families. That figure was raised to $500 in 1964, the first year that relocation funds and rental assistance were included elderly individuals. But in many cities, “relocation assistance” simply amounted to flyers with lists of local real estate brokers.
Because of baked-in local discretion, thousands and thousands of those who were displaced never received any financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them; as a result, displacement records constitute one of the archival silences of urban renewal. In one Cleveland neighborhood, 717 families’ homes were razed to clear land for industrial redevelopment. Of them, 224 moved to “unknown” locations (they were likely living with friends and family); 57 moved into other forms of “substandard” housing; and 301 still lived, as the city’s Black paper reported, “in the midst of abandoned housing.” Across a number of Cleveland’s renewal programs, officials admitted not knowing what had become of another 1,194 families.
Thousands of those who were displaced never received financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them.
The transfer of wealth, capital, and land from these communities to large business interests and developers only scratches the surface of the damage done by urban renewal. Ties of kinship and community were shattered. The loss of a sense of “rootedness” was devastating. Grady Abrams, who was displaced from the Five Points neighborhood in Augusta, Georgia, recalled the traumatic experience of his lost community. “It is one thing to leave your home, your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner.” He testified to the lasting trauma: “It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. In fact, my neighbors and I lost relationships forever. There is nothing of the past now in Five Points that I can show my grandchildren and great grandchildren that was part of my past. Nothing at all.”
All of these issues were known to federal administrators. As one 1965 report found, thanks to urban renewal, “Nonwhites have been forced into already crowded housing facilities, thereby spreading blight, aggravating ghettoes, and generally defeating the social purpose of urban renewal.” Displaced citizens, another report found, “are faced with having to reconstruct their lives. . . . They must terminate relationships and break routines that—especially for the elderly—have been equated with life itself.” These were connections to tradition, community, and history that the built environment makes manifest—the millions of memories and attachments we make to each other through spaces like street corners and schools, bars and barber shops.
As we try to reconstruct these histories, so far we only have comprehensive family displacement data for the years 1950–66. These figures dramatically undercount families of color because in many places Latin and Caribbean communities were counted as white, as in the Lincoln Center project and a number of clearance projects in California. Moreover, the government only counted families for displacement purposes, because they were the primary displacees entitled to the paltry and frequently underdelivered relocation assistance grants. Non-elderly single people and nonconforming households—by which officials meant gay and lesbian families and those in which unmarried women and men cohabitated—were not entitled to relocation assistance. They literally didn’t count.
Rather than solve urban decay, urban renewal often exacerbated the problems. Many projects took years to complete. In the state of New York, it took an average of 8 years to develop a project; in New York City the average was 13 years. Those who stuck around their old neighborhoods often lived among boarded-up and vacated buildings or vacant lots. Not surprisingly, crime, which often hadn’t been much of a problem before, frequently took hold. Once optimistic Black residents—who had hoped to take their relocation checks out to the suburbs or use them to secure new homes in their old neighborhoods—couldn’t wait to get out. As one Black property-owner in Cleveland put it, “I’d move tonight if the city will buy my property. I’m ready to get out.” But in Cleveland, as in other cities, the local urban renewal office often intentionally delayed purchasing properties. In the mid-1960s, the federal Civil Rights Commission found that city officials allowed targeted properties to fall into further disrepair in order to secure a lower purchasing price ahead of demolition.
As historian Arnold Hirsch found in his landmark study of midcentury Chicago, clearing out African Americans was often the entire point: as the Chancellor of the University of Chicago put it, the program would act as “an effective screening tool” and as a way of “cutting down the number of Negroes” in the neighborhood surrounding the elite institution. That said, communities of color, immigrants, and the elderly were not alone in shouldering the costs of urban renewal. Many working-class white communities were devastated as well. While white families had more options for neighborhoods where they could move, and greater access to traditional mortgages, the loss of community and history reverberated across the color line.
“It is one thing to leave your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner. It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. There is nothing of the past now that I can show my grandchildren.”
In Boston, the majority of families displaced to build the city’s new West End and brutalist Government Center complex—nearly 70 percent—were white. Though even that figure suggests that nonwhite Bostonians were disproportionately displaced: as of 1960, they were still less than 10 percent of the city’s population. Still, the sheer number of white families displaced in Boston, more than 7,000, is staggering. And, as in Black neighborhoods, class played an important role in leading officials to choose certain communities—those with fewer resources and less political clout suffered greater losses. In Brooklyn, for instance, white, middle-class gentrifiers successfully blocked or modified key aspects of Robert Moses’s redevelopment plans for Brooklyn Heights and neighborhoods farther south. In the process, they also taught city planners about the potential value to be gained through preservation and gentrification. From these clashes emerged new, subtler and more recognizably modern forms of urban renewal: code enforcement, historical zoning, targeted policing.
In total, at least 550 square miles of U.S. cities were razed through urban renewal. The scale of displacement in big cities was staggering. Washington, D.C.’s Southwest projects displaced more than 4,000 families. The Lubbock, Texas, Coronado project forced out nearly 1,300 families and, federal data shows, managed not to touch a single white family. The country’s single largest project in terms of dislocation was Cincinnati’s Kenyon-Barr, which displaced at least 4,953 families—4,824 of which were African American. However, the intimacy of clearance in small city renewal projects was no less devastating. Communities that had lived and worked beside each other were ripped apart. Tiny Danville, Kentucky—population 9,010 in 1960—cleared out its lone Black residential and commercial district, displacing businesses and at least 48 families of color. When violence erupted in smaller cities in Georgia—Augusta in 1970 and Rome in 1971—a younger generation of African Americans in these communities signaled that discriminatory policing and displacement continued to define their second-class citizenship.
Throughout, local and federal officials kept their eyes on the bottom line: property values and property tax revenues. As the commissioner of the federal Urban Renewal Administration testified before Congress, the leading rationale for the program had “always been to sustain and increase the capacity of cities to meet rising needs for essential public facilities and services”; “private enterprise could not do it alone”; and “the impact of urban renewal upon taxable values is particularly important.” Local officials enthusiastically ratified these commitments. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley expected the city’s tax harvest on renewed land to rise from $2.3 million to $4.8 million. The massive Southwest, Washington, D.C., renewal project—estimated to displace some 2,500 black families—was expected to produce nearly $5 million in tax revenue annually against less than $600,000 prior to clearance. Even Tiny Calexico, California, population 7,900 in 1960, situated on the California–Mexico border, predicted a nearly fourfold uptick in property tax yields on its renewed land, from $4,400 to $16,400.
Many projects failed, leaving cities under pressure to boost property values through aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, the DOJ found that Ferguson’s harsh policing of Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue.
Yet, for many cities, these forecasts were dead wrong. Many projects failed to materialize, often removing otherwise “productive” properties from the tax rolls. The result has been even greater pressure on municipal governments to boost property values and tax yields, goals they have often pursued through greater borrowing and aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by Ferguson, Missouri, police, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the city’s harsh policing of its Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue. The recent allegations that Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville police was tied to a special police squad—“Place Based Investigations”—makes the linkage between policing, municipal revenue creation, and redevelopment even clearer. According to attorneys for Taylor’s family, the warrants associated with narcotics investigations were meant to address one of the “primary roadblocks” to a multimillion-dollar redevelopment initiative. As the attorneys put it, “When the layers are peeled back, the origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards.”
The young man James Baldwin spoke with in San Francisco understood that the fullest expressions of identity and citizenship rest on the most intimate foundations—the spaces of home and community through which our lives take on meaning, a neighborhood to which we might return, memories created and that come rushing back. Returning to such spaces enables us to rediscover our roots, collapsing, for a moment, the distance between past and present. Urban renewal robbed generations of these formative spaces—and much more besides.
As today’s movements for social justice grapple with state-sanctioned violence on communities of color, we must also be alert to the fact that policing is but one branch of the local state. While the audacity and scale of urban renewal was exceptional, the structural conditions and fiscal-political logics that created it are still with us. Indeed, today’s austerity and municipal debt only increases urban budgetary pressures, which helps explain why cities led by Black mayors and councils are as likely as any other to pursue aggressive displacement and redevelopment schemes. These powerful dynamics also help explain why city officials resist calls for defunding the police: they guard present property values and are one among a number of tools for producing the property values of the future. Focusing on policing alone, then, misses this broader picture—of urban real estate, the fiscal bases of city governance, and capitalism. Producing flourishing Black communities today means addressing all of these forces at once.
Young black people have exploded in rebellion over the grotesque killing of George Floyd. We are now witnessing the broadest protest movement in American history. And yet the response of black elected officials has been cautious and uninspired.
The Congressional Black Caucus offered a familiar list of the kind of police reforms that have failed for decades to end police violence. After protesters vandalized CNN’s headquarters and set a police car on fire in Atlanta, the mayor, Keisha Bottoms, told them to “go home” because registering to vote “is the change we need.” President Barack Obama also argued in an essay that “real change” comes from both protest and voting.
Instead, organizers on the ground have provided leadership. Women like Mary Hooks from Southerners on New Ground in Atlanta and Miski Noor and Kandace Montgomery of the Black Vision Collective in Minneapolis have been at the center of articulating new demands for redistributing resources away from policing, prisons and billionaires, and back into public programs. We can also find this leadership among the ranks of black low-wage “essential workers” who have challenged Amazon and other big corporations since the beginning of the pandemic. These organizers and workers are channeling the confrontational black politics of a previous period.
Because of them, we are at the end of one era of black politics and the start of a new one.
The revolt in American cities, amid a deadly pandemic that is disproportionately killing African-Americans, suggests that people feel the political system cannot solve their problems. Many have been looking back at the urban uprisings of the 1960s to make sense of our situation. Those protests exposed a shocking degree of racism in the supposedly liberal North. A main demand from protesters then was more black political control of cities.
Our own intelligence about the oppressiveness of the kind of society which would like to forget us along with other historical ‘mistakes’ should give black people a unique force in effecting change in America. An infusion of blacks into the political arena might provide the moral force of ‘soul’ which America either lost or never had. …
Some see the black American’s choice as between withdrawing from this ‘hopeless’ government or overthrowing the entire system. I see our choices as between political involvement or political apathy. America is the black man’s battleground. It is here where it will be decided whether or not we will make America what it says it is.
The Congressional Black Caucus was formed in that era. Its members called themselves the “conscience of the Congress” and saw themselves as representing the political interests of all of black America. They were “unbought and unbossed” as a founding member, Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York, said.
This independence led to confrontations, not only with Republicans, but also within the Democratic Party. In the summer of 1972, just weeks before Democrats would formally nominate Senator George McGovern for president, the caucus wrote a “Black Declaration of Independence” and “Black Bill of Rights.” These were inspired by a more militant document called “A National Black Agenda” that had emerged from the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., where thousands of African-Americans had convened earlier that year.
To be fair, no elected official is ever wholly “unbought” or “unbossed.” It is the nature of politics to negotiate and compromise. Many black politicians represented urban areas, and governing became harder as whites and their tax dollars fled to the suburbs. The 1970s also saw the end of the postwar economic boom and the acceleration of deindustrialization. The changing economic fortunes of cities, which had been the engine of the American economy, made it harder for the ascendant black political class to carry out reforms.
Increasingly, black elected officials were seen as managing the crises in black working class communities, instead of leading efforts to root them out.
In 1994, the Congressional Black Caucus played a key role in the passage of the notorious crime bill, which is widely viewed as pivotal in the turn toward mass incarceration. Although the caucus pushed for a provision that would have allowed defendants on death row to appeal their sentences by citing statistics to try to show that such sentences have been racially biased, Bill Clinton weeded this out of the legislation. Nonetheless, a vast majority of caucus members still voted for the bill. In doing so, they had the support of African-American mayors in Denver, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta and other major cities.
This was not just a case of selling out. As more blacks entered the middle class, political demands shifted. Black elected officials were more in tune with the needs of their middle-class constituencies, black and white, than they were with the needs of the black working class. And their middle-class constituencies were more often concerned about a rise in property taxes than in ensuring access to a local Head Start.
Perhaps the uprising in Baltimore in April 2015 marked a symbolic end to this phase of black politics. Black people held many of the city’s top leadership roles, and the nation’s first black president and attorney general were a mere 40 miles away. And yet that concentration of black political power was not enough to stop the death of Freddie Gray, who died after being detained by the Baltimore police.
Of course, the problems ran much deeper than police violence. Thousands of African-Americans lived in neighborhoods where there was no pretense of investment. Black leaders didn’t stop the chronic joblessness or the underfunding of the public schools. Instead, many of them dug into the strategy of trying to attract higher salaried workers while making poverty so uncomfortable that the poor would simply leave.
This style of governance can be seen in cities across the country, and it may be motivating the “reverse migration” of African Americans to the South in search of better housing and jobs. Thousands of blacks are leaving Chicago each year as the city has become increasingly hostile to their presence. The greatest public policy expenditures in Chicago are for the police, even as black residents have grown desperate for affordable housing and more investment in public schools. The city, which is now led by a black mayor, Lori Lightfoot, still prioritizes boondoggle development ventures like the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project.
Black electoral success has not translated into qualitative improvements in black life. This too, erodes black participation in the political process. If voting simply reproduces variations on the same overall condition of deprivation, then black people are less likely to participate.
Mr. Bloomberg was mostly known for his full-throated support of stop-and-frisk, which resulted in millions of needless police stops. As Mr. Bloomberg erroneously celebrated that tactic as the reason behind New York’s drop in crime, other cities sought to replicate it. That’s why stop-and-frisk and the racial profiling at its core were among the catalysts for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Young black voters supported Bernie Sanders, but he was unable to translate that support into actual votes. His policies would have been most beneficial to African-Americans; in fact, they were more enthusiastic about his signature issue, Medicare for All, than any other demographic. But black voters in South Carolina, after the endorsement of Representative James Clyburn, cast cautious and predictable votes for Mr. Biden and turned the tide of the primary.
While older black voters are paralyzed by pragmatism when faced with the potential for a second term of Donald Trump, they have also been conditioned to accept the absolute least from political representatives. At the same time, young black people are rebelling against the strangulation of the status quo. This includes a stale black leadership that regularly fails to rise to challenges confronting this generation, which refuses to accept the symbolism of black leadership without its professed rewards. Black elected officials have become adept at mobilizing the tropes of black identity without any of its political content. Case in point: Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, painting the words “Black Lives Matter” on a street headed in the direction of the White House. But she also proposed a $45 million increase in the local police budget.
In 2018, three black women sued the city, claiming that the policies pursued by its administrators served to “attract younger, more affluent professionals” and “discriminated against poor and working class African-Americans” who had lived in the city for generations. These plaintiffs, like the mayor, are black women, but their differing class positions and access to power have fundamentally impeded the possibilities of solidarity.
Mr. Trump’s smearing of Ms. Bowser as “incompetent” put black voters in a tough spot. They want to defend African-American officials from racist and sexist charges, while at the same time challenging these officials’ policies. For poor black women in Washington, the issue isn’t incompetence; it’s Ms. Bowser’s conception of development, which has left working-class blacks behind.
This doesn’t mean that representation no longer matters. It does. But we can no longer assume that shared identity means a shared commitment to the strategies necessary to improve the lives of a vast majority of black people. Class tensions among African-Americans have produced new fault lines that the romance of racial solidarity simply cannot overcome.
Representation in the halls of power has clearly worked for some, but we must talk about those it hasn’t worked for. We have not seen, in decades, protests with the scale or scope of those that were unleashed by the killing of George Floyd. New, young, black leaders with the Movement for Black Lives are now emerging, leaders unencumbered by past failures and buoyed by their connection to the ruckus in the streets.
“Please don’t be too nice,” Donald Trump told an audience of police officers on Long Island in 2017, in a speech largely focused on the MS-13 gang. The audience laughed. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”
Floyd’s killing has sparked nationwide protests, despite the fact that the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans and left 40 million without work, is still killing about 1,000 people a day in the United States. Those Americans who were disproportionately dying from a plague came out in force to protest being murdered by their government. Trump, who ran as the “law and order” candidate, now presides over the very “American carnage” he vowed to end.
A different president might have tried to quell the unrest and unify the nation, but Trump is incapable of that. He cannot rally Americans around a common identity or interest, because his presidency is a rejection of the concept, an affirmation of the conviction that America’s traditional social hierarchies are good and just. He is hardly the first president to embrace those hierarchies as unassailably virtuous, but he is the first in decades to do so openly. Law and order, for this president, simply means that he and his ideological allies are above the law, while others, such as Floyd, are merely subject to it. The chaos sweeping across the United States has many causes, but the one over which the president has the most control is the culture of lawlessness and impunity he has cultivated and embraced. When you attempt to impose “law and order” without justice, you get chaos.
The moral core of the protests is a simple demand: that police who abuse their authority be held accountable, that black Americans be able to live free lives without fearing that they will be cut short by a chance encounter with law enforcement. This demand clashes with the history of the United States, in which the ideal of equal justice coexists uneasily with the tacit understanding of many Americans that guarding the color line is one of law enforcement’s obligations, a commitment that has existed from slavery to the beating of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Ronald Reagan blamed the activist for his own murder, hissing that King’s death was the kind of “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order.”
When a white dog-walker in Central Park threatened to call the police on a black bird-watcher and tell them that “an African American man is threatening my life,” she was leveraging their mutual understanding that the police exist to protect white people from black people. This is why Chauvin and his fellow officers thought nothing of him being videotaped as he dug his knee into Floyd’s neck, and why authorities in Georgia saw no crime in the stalking and killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Integrating police departments was meant to help align law enforcement with its stated ideals, but as in every other area of public policy, correcting centuries of tradition is an arduous task, even if one is sincerely committed to it.
The president, a man who once called for the execution of five black and Hispanic teenagers for a crime they did not commit, is not just skeptical of reform. He views the violent enforcement of the color line as an honorable calling, and one that police officers should embrace rather than reject. Decades after taking out a newspaper ad demanding that New York “Bring back the death penalty and bring back our police!” the president still refuses to acknowledge the innocence of the Central Park Five. If they were not guilty of the actual crime, they were guilty of being the kind of people he wanted the police to crack down on.
Trump has few ideological convictions as consistent as his belief in the redemptive power of state violence against religious and ethnic minorities. During the 2016 campaign, Trump regaled audiences with tales of apocryphal war crimes against Muslims by American service members, then he pardoned service members who engaged in actual war crimes. He vowed to disregard the constitutional rights of anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, then he pardoned Joe Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff famous for violating those rights.
Remarks like those the president made on Long Island are often dismissed by the president’s defenders as just an artifact of his brash personality. Hardly. The Trump administration has worked diligently to turn the president’s affection for extralegal cruelty against religious and ethnic minorities into public policy, from the Trump-era toddler jails for migrants to his anti-Muslim travel ban. As with the prior examples, Trump’s encouragement of police brutality is far more than bluster.
During the Obama administration, the civil-rights division of the Justice Department undertook an aggressive effort to root out unconstitutional policing practices, initiating more such investigations than any prior administration. The authority it relied on was authored by police reformers and tucked into the now-disfavored 1994 crime bill, drafted in part by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Its inclusion in the bill was a response to the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers who attacked him. In other words, in 2017, the Trump administration took a provision of the law passed to prevent police brutality and the unrest it sparks, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash.
In Miami, Obama-era investigators found “egregiously long delays in concluding administrative investigations of officer-involved shootings.” In Chicago, they found a widespread pattern of abuses hidden by “police officers’ code of silence,” which included lying and “affirmative efforts to conceal evidence.” In Baltimore, which was rocked by riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, investigators discovered “repeated violations of … constitutional and statutory rights, further eroding the community’s trust in the police.” In Ferguson, Missouri, an investigation following the protests and riots sparked by the killing of Michael Brown found that local police had set “maximizing revenue as the priority,” not solving crime, leading to officers crushing the town’s impoverished black residents with fines and fees designed to finance the local government. If the Trump administration had not abandoned any effort at police oversight, it might have discovered that Minnesota police had rendered dozens of suspects unconscious with the same knee restraint that killed Floyd.
Among the police forces investigated was the Suffolk County Police Department, the jurisdiction where Trump gave his speech extolling the virtues of police brutality. The department entered into a federal-supervision agreement in 2014 to take measures to avoid discriminating against Hispanic residents.
The Justice Department’s probes were not criminal investigations. Their purpose was to curb police abuses and, by doing so, to improve local law-enforcement agencies’ relationships with their communities and reduce crime. When a local community lives in fear of the police, its members will minimize their interactions with cops as much as possible, lest they end up like Floyd.
Ideally, overseeing police misconduct would be the job of local elected officials. But what appears to be a public-policy problem is also a problem of political power. Local leaders cower in fear of the power of police unions, whose political interests include not just securing higher wages and benefits or better equipment and overtime pay, but impunity for criminal behavior.
“Many of these unions have pushed collective bargaining agreements that make it all but impossible for departments to punish, much less fire, officers,” as BuzzFeed News’ Melissa Segura has written. “These agreements defang civilian review boards and police internal affairs departments, and they even prevent police chiefs from providing meaningful oversight, according to community activists and civil rights lawyers. Meanwhile, the unions have set up legal slush funds to defend officers sued for misconduct.”
The approach of many police unions both reinforces the code of silence for police abuse and makes officers whose consciences are troubled less likely to intervene, because the social costs of speaking out are so much greater than the possibility that a corrupt officer will face justice for breaking the law.
“It’s tough when somebody witnesses something and they want to speak up against it. You feel like if you do speak up, you’ll end up looking like the bad guy. Now people don’t want to talk to you,” Michael Baysmore, a black former cop in Baltimore, told BuzzFeed News in 2016. “And if nothing even happens to the person you spoke up against, it’s almost like, what’s the point?”
The extent of police unions’ power was illustrated this weekend, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected as a police reformer, defended cops plowing through protesters with cars even as the local sergeants’ union doxxed his daughter for participating in the protests.
The Obama administration’s reform efforts, although ultimately aimed at improving policing, were seen by the police unions as a “war on cops,” because they threatened the impunity to which their organizations aspired. By 2015, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and their ability to document for white audiences the shocking regularity of lethal encounters between police and black Americans had led some police-union officials to reconsider their approach. But the rise of Donald Trump, and his unqualified embrace of both racial discrimination and official impunity for law enforcement, offered new political possibilities.
Police departments themselves are not monolithic—some actually rejected Sessions’s offer to rescind federal-oversight agreements—and some law-enforcement organizations, those run by black officers in particular, have tried to rectify the profession’s history of discrimination. But the political power of police unions, the impunity granted by police contracts, and the culture of silence enforced by both leave little room for dissent, with isolation and ignominy as a reward for those who do. The entrenched legal doctrine of qualified immunity ensures that the most egregious violations of the Constitution cannot be addressed in civil court. A system that so efficiently stifles accountability cannot be overcome by the good intentions of individual officers. It is a system that ensures, as a matter of design, that bad apples remain to spoil the batch. And that was before the president encouraged police to engage in brutality for its own sake.
The head of the police union in Minneapolis, Bob Kroll, decried the Obama administration’s “handcuffing and oppression of the police” at a Trump rally in 2019. On Monday, Kroll released a letter complaining that the four police officers who had been fired over Floyd’s death had been denied “due process.” Floyd, who was being detained on suspicion of forgery, was to blame for his own death, because of his “violent criminal history.” This is a worldview that is consonant with Trumpism, in that it imagines being democratically accountable to those you regard as beneath you as tyranny, and the unquestioned authority to impose your will on those people as freedom. But amidst the president’s vocal encouragement of police brutality, his administration’s conscious abdication of oversight, and the police unions’ fanatical resistance to accountability, the condemnations of Floyd’s killing from Trump and his allies ring hollow.
This agenda of impunity for police who break the law has merged flawlessly with President Trump’s belief in impunity for himself and his allies. Both political philosophies envision a line drawn between those who are protected by the law and those who are subject to it. As Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, articulated with chilling clarity, communities that protest police abuses “might find themselves without the police protection they need.” This principle does not apply to the president or other members of the ruling party in good standing—merely to Americans whose rights have historically been easily revocable, and occasionally to those who express solidarity with them.
As the historian Rick Perlstein recounts in Nixonland, when asked by a black reporter what law and order meant, Nixon replied, “To me law and order must be combined with justice. Now that’s what I want for America. I want the kind of law and order that deserves respect.” Reporters today do not bother asking Trump what law and order means, because everyone already understands that it simply means violence.
Trump has dispensed with any pretense of seeking justice, and the Trump-era Republican Party has closed every possible path for reforming the police. Federal oversight of police is oppression. Elected officials who seek police reform have “blood on their hands.” The exercise of prosecutorial discretion by district attorneys is “anti-law enforcement” when it involves “seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient,” in the words of Barr, who has meanwhile busied himself with bailing out the president’s criminal associates. Those who challenge police abuses are not even allowed the dignity of protesting in silence. This is not the rule of law; it is the rule of might, and it is devoid of anything resembling justice.
After Floyd’s death, Minneapolis erupted in protests, including riots that began last Wednesday night and lasted through the weekend. The protests spread across the country, and in some cases so did the violence. In an atmosphere of lawlessness, opportunists looking to harm others, cause destruction, vandalize, or steal will attach themselves to whatever legitimate cause they can find. Those acting out of rage or grief may do the same. But whether motivated by rage, greed, or outright malice, such criminal acts cannot discredit demands for police accountability, or justify police brutality. They cannot repeal the Constitution.
Many police departments across the country seem determined to escalate rather than prevent violence. Videos of protests have shown “police officers in recent nights using batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders and journalists, often without warning or seemingly unprovoked,” as The New York Times reported. This was Barr’s prophecy: an ungrateful public, protesting the unjust taking of human lives by law enforcement, punished for the foolish belief that their rights were inalienable. A First Amendment that guarantees the freedom to criticize the government only when you do not criticize the government is meaningless.
For a century, such riots in America have followed a familiar script—there is an incident of police brutality that goes unpunished, a protest, an escalation by police, and then a riot. These incidents are icebergs—the precipitating event and the destruction that follows are merely what can be seen above the surface. Underneath lie years of anger, abuse, and neglect. We do not know how the president’s encouragement of such abuse has shaped policing in the cities now rocked by protests, because his Justice Department has willingly blinded itself to the answer.
There is no romance in the destruction. Riots are, for the communities in which they occur, desperate acts of self-immolation, with consequences that can last for decades. Yet the historical record shows that the authorities often avoid taking the grievances of such communities seriously until buildings start burning. Only then do those who previously dismissed nonviolent protests against police brutality, or participated in belittling or silencing them, begin to pay attention and ask what would move such people to violence.
Such riots are, in the long run, devastating for all involved. But a legal and political system that sees no crime in the murder of black Americans by police until things are set on fire leaves black Americans with two terrible options: acquiescing to a system in which your life does not matter, or engaging in acts of destruction and self-destruction that persuade authorities to treat the needless taking of a life by police officers as a crime worth investigating, let alone punishing.
To say that a grievance is justified is not to justify every action taken by the aggrieved. But as a nation, we bear particular responsibility for the violence committed by police. We do not pay civilian rioters and looters with taxpayer dollars and empower them with the authority to use lethal force to protect our rights and our persons, as we do with police officers. That authority is a power granted by the people, and if it is abused, it must be withdrawn.
Most of Trump’s predecessors in the 20th century, including Nixon, who believed black people unfit for self-government, preoccupied themselves with preserving the credibility of an unequal justice system. By forswearing even that, by publicly reveling in the idea that state violence should be used to affirm America’s traditional social hierarchies, by denying the very legitimacy of both private protest and social reform, the Trump administration has undermined respect for the law more than any radical left-wing professor or hotheaded activist. The president sees the law as a thing of mere violence, a matter of who has enough guns to enforce their will. You can make people fear the law at gunpoint, but you cannot make them respect it.
Editor’s note: On Wednesday, June 3 at 1 p.m., the author will co-host Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation. Sign up and join here.
American cities are in upheaval, awakened by the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy, which has resulted in 40 million people out of work and the spectacle of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
Dozens of American cities are experiencing a scale of protests, clashes between police and demonstrators, and National Guard deployments not seen since the “long hot summers” of racial discontent and crisis that characterized much of the 1960s. Sympathy protests in Berlin and London’s Trafalgar Square outside the U.S. Embassy have drawn thousands of demonstrators who not only insist that “Black Lives Matter!” but reflect widespread global resistance against racial injustice manifested in the criminal justice system.
We are witnessing a level of national civil unrest that recalls the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, when 125 cities exploded in protest and violence. From peaceful demonstrations to clashes between protesters and Secret Service agents outside the White House, a national racial crisis is unfurling before our very eyes.
The public execution of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis police last week has sparked national protests that have, in some instances, evolved into open political rebellion contoured by violent skirmishes between police and demonstrators and the destruction of property. Racial unrest gripping major American cities, against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, reflects the contemporary magnitude of racial injustice.
A national tragedy should be turned into a generational opportunity
The inhumanity of Floyd’s death heaped further indignity on African American communities suffering disproportionately from the brutal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Black folk have been diagnosed with, and died from, COVID-19 at alarming rates. The killing of George Floyd represents a national tragedy that should be turned into a generational opportunity.
Black death at the hands of the police is not new. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted in 2014, turning a hashtag commemorating the mounting number of African Americans killed, assaulted, and brutalized by the police and displayed in social media, into a social movement that combined the non-violent civil disobedience of the civil rights era with Black Power’s structural critique of white supremacy and anti-Black racism.
BLM activists argued that America’s criminal justice system represents a gateway to panoramic systems of racial and economic oppression. The criminalization of poverty has long roots, but the past four decades have institutionalized systems of punishment that have deepened and exacerbated racial inequality. During the 1980s and 1990s, as violence, crime, and poverty raged against the backdrop of the crack cocaine explosion, both Democrats and Republicans competed with each other over how best to criminalize black inner city residents. Ronald Reagan’s tough on crime rhetoric and policies begat George H.W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton and Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare “reforms” that further criminalized black communities and made it virtually impossible to successfully re-enter society by blocking avenues to employment, education, and housing after release.
The eruption of the BLM movement during the second term of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, illustrates how deeply entrenched the issues related to George Floyd’s death are. Donald J. Trump’s open embrace of white supremacists—from Charlottesville, Virginia’s 2017 demonstrations that left one woman dead to anti-government militias that marched to the Michigan state house in defiance of shelter-in-place orders armed with semi-automatic weapons—has fanned the flames of racial intolerance, police violence against black communities, and racially inflammatory.
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history, from the 1928 “Master Plan” that institutionalized racial segregation as citywide policy, to the decades-long efforts to fully integrate the University of Texas, to the gentrification of the historic East Side neighborhood at the cost of longstanding black residents, businesses, and communities. Racial integration in Austin has since proceeded in fits and starts, with segregated public schools and neighborhoods remaining the comfortable norm. Gentrification along the city’s East Side has largely displaced Austin’s historic black residents who find themselves compelled to depart neighborhoods just as they are flooded with the kind of investment that attracts white families, creates high achieving schools, increases home owner values, and thriving communities.
As if to acknowledge this history, activists blocked Interstate-35 on Saturday, the highway serving as a barrier between black and white Austin by design, locking Austin’s African American communities from access to white spaces, properties, and power.
The problems of racial segregation, poverty, and criminal justice that have scarred Minneapolis are national, impact Austin and other major cities around the country and, indeed, the world.
Austin, one of the nation’s fastest growing, wealthiest, and well positioned urban cities, has a unique opportunity to emerge as a national leader on the issue of racial justice.
The University of Texas at Austin, with the motto that “what happens here changes the world,” can be a major part of the city’s much needed transition from its current status as an enviable hub of technology, education, venture capital, and music into a national incubator of social justice, equity, inclusion, and full citizenship for all Austinites.
On this score the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, a center devoted to research, study, and social policy impact at the intersection of civil rights, race, and democracy, will be sponsoring an event designed to build community, forge networks, and problem-solve around issues of racial injustice that reverberate from Minneapolis to Austin and beyond. Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation will feature Mayor Steve Adler, Councilwoman Natasha Harper-Madison, Councilwoman Alison Alter and be moderated by myself and Jeremi Suri, my colleague at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
The protests erupting around the nation attest to a dearth of national leadership on race matters and the very meaning of American democracy. In times of national crisis—from the Great Depression to the Second World War to Civil Rights and 9-11—we come to better understand ourselves as Americans.
The fact that George Floyd could outlive the COVID-19 pandemic only to run into the even deadlier virus of white supremacy is both a national tragedy and a generational opportunity.
An opportunity to confront deep-seated racial inequities plaguing Austin
All of us can and must do more. From civil rights and faith communities to education, political, and business leaders, we must seize the combined tragedies of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and the tragedy of another unjustified killing of a black person at the hands of our justice system as an opportunity to finally confront deep-seated racial inequities that plague this city as much as any other.
Austin can turn this national moment of grief and mourning into a marker of public shame or a symbol of American renewal, with the knowledge that our city led the way in recognizing that a full commitment to anti-racist public policy and racial justice would allow us to achieve the community and nation we dream about.
How does an anti-racist Austin look? We can start by acknowledging the stubborn persistence of racial segregation in our city’s public schools and neighborhoods, a fact that amplifies opportunity gaps in education, employment, and housing and helps to create a feedback loop of racial disparities in rates of poverty, treatment before the criminal justice system, access to electoral politics, small business loans, venture capital and so much more. We must identify and understand negative disparities as part of systemic racism rather than behavior deficiencies in black people. We must root out injustice and inequities based on race in our policies, forging a community where racial equity centers our public conversation about the larger political good. So many Austinites of good will recognize aspects of the problem, but are unsure of where to begin, what organization to join, what would be the best use of their resources.
The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s Justice and Equity event is the first step in what we hope will be a socially impactful, politically relevant, and politically transformative movement in Austin to not only redress past mistakes but to acknowledge, repair, and build a future Austin worthy of our citizens.
Peniel E. Joseph is an American scholar, teacher, and leading public voice on race issues who holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.
America’s willful ignorance about Black lives
This could be a watershed moment for the threats that Black Americans face, but only if political leaders and citizens refuse to accept anything less than real reform.
“The reason that Black people are in the streets,” the acclaimed American writer James Baldwin said in 1968, “has to do with the lives they are forced to lead in this country. And they are forced to lead these lives by the indifference and the apathy and a certain kind of ignorance, a very willful ignorance, on the part of their co-citizens.” A half century later, Baldwin’s wrenching words reverberate in an America where thousands of protesters across dozens of cities have taken to the streets over the past three days despite a deadly pandemic. The country they are objecting to is one where a police officer kneels on the neck of a Black man until he dies, knowing it is all being caught on camera; the country where, after a Black jogger in a white neighborhood is shot to death in broad daylight, the killers go weeks without facing charges; the country where police officers can shoot a young Black woman eight times in her own apartment after entering unannounced with a warrant for someone who did not live there.
In this America, the president tweets out dog whistles to white supremacists and threatens protesters with violence. Never mind that the same president encouraged protests just a few weeks ago that culminated in the storming of the Michigan Capitol by armed white vigilantes.
“Everybody knows, no matter what they do not know, that they wouldn’t like to be a Black man in this country,” Baldwin said in 1968. The ills he spoke of remain; some have even worsened. Stark income and wealth gaps persist along racial lines, failing schools and paltry social services put a giant foot on the scale against Black youth, biased judges and juries disproportionately imprison Black men, and the severe health disparities suffered by Black Americans now include a higher death rate from COVID-19. But the most poignant picture of racial injustice in America is repainted in blood whenever a police officer, armed and sanctioned by the state and wearing the uniform of the law, kills a Black citizen with impunity. With the video of the death of George Floyd under the knee of white Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, Black Americans once again relive a brutal nightmare that dates back to the country’s founding. Their lives are deemed dispensable, even and sometimes especially by those whose job it is to enforce the law.
And on Tuesday, the day after the incident, it took civil unrest in the streets to spur his arrest and murder charges on Friday. The three officers who helped him during the arrest, who either held George Floyd down or stood by as he said he could not breathe and cried out for his mother, have not faced charges. The camera footage shows a group of officers who acted as if they knew they would not be punished.
It is a form of Baldwin’s “willful ignorance” that the country’s politicians, policy makers, prosecutors, and police departments have not done more to prevent and punish acts of violence against Black people on the part of police and it is a form of willful ignorance that more citizens are not outraged. Piecemeal reforms to diversify police forces, train officers to de-escalate conflict, and require body cameras have fallen abysmally short in protecting Black people from errant law enforcement officers. Derek Chauvin had nearly 20 complaints and two letters of reprimand filed against him and had opened fire on two people before he knelt on the neck of George Floyd. Across the country, there is still too little accountability for police, including here in Boston, where the city has stopped releasing stop-and-frisk data.
It is striking that chiefs of police around the nation quickly condemned the incident that led to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. But over the past few days, what has followed such political statements are violent confrontations between police and protesters and between police and journalists in many cities. Law enforcement officers have driven vehicles through crowds, tear-gassed protesters, and opened fire with rubber bullets on journalists. For the people on the streets who are exploiting the unrest and endangering others, arrests are justified. But numerous accounts point to acts of disproportionate police violence in response to peaceful protests.
That more and more Americans are refusing to accept the violence against Black Americans presents political leaders and law enforcement agencies around the nation with an imperative to act. State and federal lawmakers must use this moment to enact bolder policy reforms than those to date to reduce sentencing disparities, raise juvenile justice ages to keep young people out of the prison system, reform civil service laws that make it hard to hold cops accountable for wrongdoing, and strengthen civilian police-oversight boards. Police departments across the nation should press for the authority to remove officers who have any history of racial violence or aggression toward citizens; police chiefs should show that they have zero tolerance for such acts. They must send a loud and clear message that the era of sanctioned police violence against Black citizens is over.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.
The racial contract is not partisan—it guides staunch conservatives and sensitive liberals alike—but it works most effectively when it remains imperceptible to its beneficiaries. As long as it is invisible, members of society can proceed as though the provisions of the social contract apply equally to everyone. But when an injustice pushes the racial contract into the open, it forces people to choose whether to embrace, contest, or deny its existence. Video evidence of unjustified shootings of black people is so jarring in part because it exposes the terms of the racial contract so vividly. But as the process in the Arbery case shows, the racial contract most often operates unnoticed, relying on Americans to have an implicit understanding of who is bound by the rules, and who is exempt from them.
The implied terms of the racial contract are visible everywhere for those willing to see them. A 12-year-old with a toy gun is a dangerous threat who must be met with lethal force; armed militias drawing beads on federal agents are heroes of liberty. Struggling white farmers in Iowa taking billions in federal assistance are hardworking Americans down on their luck; struggling single parents in cities using food stamps are welfare queens. Black Americans struggling in the cocaine epidemic are a “bio-underclass” created by a pathological culture; white Americans struggling with opioid addiction are a national tragedy. Poor European immigrants who flocked to an America with virtually no immigration restrictions came “the right way”; poor Central American immigrants evading a baroque and unforgiving system are gang members and terrorists.
But the pandemic has introduced a new clause to the racial contract. The lives of disproportionately black and brown workers are being sacrificed to fuel the engine of a faltering economy, by a president who disdains them. This is the COVID contract.
As the first cases of the coronavirus were diagnosed in the United States, in late January and early February, the Trump administration and Fox News were eager to play down the risk it posed. But those early cases, tied to international travel, ensnared many members of the global elite: American celebrities, world leaders, and those with close ties to Trump himself. By March 16, the president had reversed course, declaring a national emergency and asking Americans to avoid social gatherings.
The purpose of the restrictions was to flatten the curve of infections, to keep the spread of the virus from overwhelming the nation’s medical infrastructure, and to allow the federal government time to build a system of testing and tracing that could contain the outbreak. Although testing capacity is improving, the president has very publicly resisted investing the necessary resources, because testing would reveal more infections; in his words, “by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”
Over the weeks that followed the declaration of an emergency, the pandemic worsened and the death toll mounted. Yet by mid-April, conservative broadcasters were decrying the restrictions, small bands of armed protesters were descending on state capitols, and the president was pressing to lift the constraints.
The disease is now “infecting people who cannot afford to miss work or telecommute—grocery store employees, delivery drivers and construction workers,” The Washington Post reported. Air travel has largely shut down, and many of the new clusters are in nursing homes, jails and prisons, and factories tied to essential industries. Containing the outbreak was no longer a question of social responsibility, but of personal responsibility. From the White House podium, Surgeon General Jerome Adams told “communities of color” that “we need you to step up and help stop the spread.”
Public-health restrictions designed to contain the outbreak were deemed absurd. They seemed, in Carlson’s words, “mindless and authoritarian,” a “weird kind of arbitrary fascism.” To restrict the freedom of white Americans, just because nonwhite Americans are dying, is an egregious violation of the racial contract. The wealthy luminaries of conservative media have sought to couch their opposition to restrictions as advocacy on behalf of workers, but polling shows that those most vulnerable to both the disease and economic catastrophe want the outbreak contained before they return to work.
Although the full picture remains unclear, researchers have found that disproportionately black counties “account for more than half of coronavirus cases and nearly 60 percent of deaths.”* The disproportionate burden that black and Latino Americans are bearing is in part a direct result of their overrepresentation in professions where they risk exposure, and of a racial gap in wealth and income that has left them more vulnerable to being laid off. Black and Latino workers are overrepresented among the essential, the unemployed, and the dead.
“When you see a virus like this one that does not respect county boundaries, this started out predominantly in Madison and Milwaukee; then we just had this outbreak in Brown County very recently in the meatpacking plants,” Roth explained. “The cases in Brown County in a span of two weeks surged over tenfold, from 60 to almost 800—”
“Due to the meatpacking, though, that’s where Brown County got the flare,” Roggensack interrupted to clarify. “It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.”
Perhaps Roggensack did not mean that the largely Latino workers in Brown County’s meatpacking plants—who have told reporters that they have been forced to work in proximity with one another, often without masks or hand sanitizer, and without being notified that their colleagues are infected—are not “regular folks” like the other residents of the state. Perhaps she merely meant that their line of work puts them at greater risk, and so the outbreaks in the meatpacking plants, seen as essential to the nation’s food supply, are not rationally related to the governor’s stay-at-home order, from which they would be exempt.
Yet either way, Roggensack was drawing a line between “regular folks” and the workers who keep them fed, mobile, safe, and connected. And America’s leaders have treated those workers as largely expendable, praising their valor while disregarding their safety.
“There were no masks. There was no distancing inside the plant, only [in the] break room. We worked really close to each other,” Raquel Sanchez Alvarado, a worker with American Foods, a Wisconsin meatpacking company, told local reporters in mid-April. “People are scared that they will be fired and that they will not find a job at another company if they express their concerns.”
In Colorado, hundreds of workers in meatpacking plants have contracted the coronavirus. In South Dakota, where a Smithfield plant became the site of an outbreak infecting more than 700 workers, a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the issue was their “large immigrant population.” On Tuesday, when Iowa reported that thousands of workers at meat-processing plants had become infected, Governor Kim Reynolds was bragging in The Washington Post about how well her approach to the coronavirus had worked.
The economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, and the Trump administration’s failure to prepare for it even as it crippled the world’s richest nations, cannot be overstated. Tens of millions of Americans are unemployed. Tens of thousands line up outside food banks and food pantries each week to obtain sustenance they cannot pay for. Businesses across the country are struggling and failing. The economy cannot be held in stasis indefinitely—the longer it is, the more people will suffer.
Yet the only tension between stopping the virus and reviving the economy is one the Trump administration and its propaganda apparatus have invented. Economists are in near-unanimous agreement that the safest path requires building the capacity to contain the virus before reopening the economy—precisely because new waves of deaths will drive Americans back into self-imposed isolation, destroying the consumer spending that powers economic growth. The federal government can afford the necessary health infrastructure and financial aid; it already shelled out hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to wealthy Americans. But the people in charge do not consider doing so to be worthwhile—Republicans have already dismissed aid to struggling state governments that laid off a million workers this month alone as a “blue-state bailout,” while pushing for more tax cuts for the rich.
“The people of our country are warriors,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “I’m not saying anything is perfect, and will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”
The frame of war allows the president to call for the collective sacrifice of laborers without taking the measures necessary to ensure their safety, while the upper classes remain secure at home. But the workers who signed up to harvest food, deliver packages, stack groceries, drive trains and buses, and care for the sick did not sign up for war, and the unwillingness of America’s political leadership to protect them is a policy decision, not an inevitability. Trump is acting in accordance with the terms of the racial contract, which values the lives of those most likely to be affected less than the inconveniences necessary to preserve them. The president’s language of wartime unity is a veil draped over a federal response that offers little more than contempt for those whose lives are at risk. To this administration, they are simply fuel to keep the glorious Trump economy burning.
Listen to Adam Serwer talk about this story on Social Distance, The Atlantic’s podcast about life in the pandemic:
*Correction: An earlier version of this piece misdescribed a study showing disproportionately black counties were responsible for more than half of coronavirus cases in the United States by describing those counties as “majority black.”
Why do we experience such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society? Why is it beyond us to conceive a different set of arrangements to our common advantage? . . . . Our disability is discursive: we simply do not know how to talk about these things any more.
—Tony Judt, Ill Fares The Land (2010)
After forty-three years of organizing, I stepped down as co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) six months ago.
When I started in 1976, I had two big questions about organizing. The first was whether one could have a normal family life while organizing professionally. The second was whether organizing could really work. Could it have impact that lasted and that reached significant scale? Thankfully, over the course of my career I found the answers were yes to both: I was able to have a full family life, and our organizations figured out how to create real change that could be sustained over decades and across regions.
I saw firsthand the extraordinary courage of African American civil rights leaders in Chicago, but I also saw the power of the Cook County Democratic machine.
But I didn’t anticipate a development that troubles me as I shift gears: that the large-scale and long-lasting impact of our organizations would not be recognized by the mainstream media or by the vast majority of academics and analysts who study and document these trends. Howard Zinn once lamented, “The obliteration of people’s movements from history is one of the fine arts of American culture.” Apparently, longer-lasting people’s organizations are overlooked as well.
Today you could drive all around New York, or San Antonio, or Washington, D.C., and a dozen other places and not realize that the streets and sewers beneath you, the thousands of homes along the avenues, the new schools rising in formerly forlorn neighborhoods, the park along the East River, the person on the bus or subway sitting beside you going to work from his or her affordable home or apartment—all that and more were imagined, designed, fought for, delivered, and maintained over decades by a form of organization that receives little or no recognition.
That neglect is due, I think, to the approach to organizing that we took—rooted in local institutions, focused on real leaders instead of media darlings, proudly pragmatic and non-ideological, focused on a few major issues not a long litmus test of policy positions. Observers of social movement are more typically captured by the polarizations that they often decry, but nonetheless amplify and accelerate: free market libertarianism versus socialism or progressivism, conservative Republicans versus liberal Democrats, Trump versus Pelosi.
So, as I transition into my new role as senior advisor, still doing on-the-ground organizing, I want to tell the real story of social change: how it happens, who creates and implements it, and what foundational work allows, for example, a job training strategy to succeed, a local library to innovate and flourish, a series of neighborhoods to be rebuilt by and for the people who already live in and near them. The appetite for change, the hunger for improvement, is still strong, but the clarity about how to organize effectively is not.
When I started at the IAF my worries about impact were justified. The IAF was a small and struggling experiment in organizing, building fragile toeholds in Texas, Chicago, New York, and Baltimore. In the 1970s we had a handful of young organizers—most of us flying by the seats of our pants. Today the IAF has strong and muscular organizations in twenty-three states and the District of Columbia. It also has a range of working relationships with organizing efforts in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. And we have about 250 well-trained professional staff of all ages and levels of experience and literally tens of thousands of sharp and savvy volunteer leaders engaged in our efforts.
The calculus of power isn’t defined by hits or clicks or tweets. It is measured in relationships and meaningful reactions over time.
In 1976 we were what would now be called a “start-up.” We weren’t trying to create another organization. We were experimenting and testing the feasibility of a new kind of organization at a time when two other organizational types—local civic groups and broader national issue-based movements— were dominant. I started organizing as a student who first observed and then participated in some of the actions of the civil rights movement in Chicago. I saw firsthand the extraordinary faith and courage of African American deacons and deaconesses, of young black clergy, and of Roman Catholic priests and nuns, who walked a gauntlet of white-hot hate in housing marches on the southwest side. Those leaders remain heroes and heroines to me to this day. But I also saw the power of the Cook County Democratic machine and its paid clergy apologists—power that blunted the impact of civil-rights activists and sent them out of the city bruised and partially defeated. I also worked in two local civic efforts in Chicago—the Contract Buyers League in an African American community known as Lawndale, the other a small neighborhood association in a white ethnic community a few miles away. Each had some impact.
The Contract Buyers League successfully exposed the habits and abuses of the predatory lenders of that era—securing an average $14,000 payment for each homeowner who had been exploited. The Northeast Austin Organization spearheaded, with other groups, the attempt to end the practice of redlining by local banks and savings and loans—the first step in the effort that led to the creation of the Community Reinvestment Act. In spite of those successes, the impact was limited; both the African American neighborhoods affected by contract selling and the adjacent white ethnic neighborhoods crippled by redlining continued to decline; and the overall arrangements of power and exploitation remained largely unfazed. A new book by Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit, does an extraordinary job of documenting the structural racial bias baked into the nation’s real estate practices. She details the damage done by those practices on generations of working-class African Americans seeking to live a better life in safer neighborhoods. She honors the attempts of some communities to counter these trends, but concludes that they were no match for the power of the real estate industry and the political machines that supported it and benefited it.
Chastened by what we believed to be the limits of these two options, senior IAF organizers at the time developed a training session that compared civics, movements, and this new experiment that we gave a clunky name: “institutionally-based power organization.” When we did that session, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, all hell would break loose. Those devoted to local civic efforts would accuse us of ignoring the wishes and priorities of block clubs, homeowners associations, and the like. Those committed to the anti-war and other movements would say that we had sold out—giving up on their strategy of sweeping (often national or even international) change for our vague process of power building that required years of painstaking ground work before the first public action even took place. Those were exciting, heated, raucous sessions. (The only thing that would get people more worked up was when we banned smoking from our meetings!)
Because we built deep and powerful bases in cities and counties, we were eventually able to target and tackle a series of issues that everyone thought were intractable.
Four decades later, I am certain that the IAF made a good bet. Because we built deep and powerful bases in cities and counties; because we sought out and engaged the institutions that still made sense to people in those places—churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, libraries, other not-for-profits, labor locals, and more; and because we created a culture of high-powered leadership training and development for our small but growing professional staff and large and expanding teams of local leaders, we were eventually able to target and tackle a series of issues that everyone thought were intractable. And they were intractable if your starting point was a small community of a few hundred homes or apartments—which was the reality for most civic efforts. And they were intractable if your movement insisted on the non-negotiable demand of immediate and total change—a demand that often failed to untie each knotty issue and wore out and confounded activists.
In 1983, for example, we decided to try to rebuild the abandoned, burnt-out, and most desperate sections of East Brooklyn. We had a very powerful local organization in place by then called East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC). Its leaders believed that they could do something unprecedented— rebuild a community by and for the people who already lived there. They understood that neither the market, nor the state would ever make things fair for black homeowners. So they created the kind of third sector power organization that would—and did.
Just two weeks ago I was working with a talented young organizer; we met in a home that EBC built in 1986, in Brownsville, with a woman who was the original buyer. It’s a modest brick townhouse that has stood the test of time. But, more importantly, its owner, retired comfortably, was sitting in a home that she and her late husband had paid off I full, enjoying a retirement that included travel and miniature golf. She is one of almost 5,000 such homeowners (and another several thousand renters) in east Brooklyn. The average increase in equity for each buyer has been more than $200,000. That translates into nearly $1 billion of equity in the wallets and savings accounts of new African American and Hispanic homeowners, and many more billions in increased equity for the local owners of homes and apartment buildings in their surrounding area. If someone had told me in the 1980s that it would take thirty-five years, I am not sure I ever would have started. But having been part of the effort, I can say with confidence that I would start tomorrow with another city that is open to this, even if it takes thirty-five more years. I wish Taylor had included more consideration in her book of the efforts of East Brooklyn Congregations and others that created conditions on the ground for black homeowners to thrive.
The notion that communities no longer have institutions, or have only crippled institutions, is false at best, racist at worst.
Another success: in the late 1990s, our Illinois affiliates led by United Power for Action and Justice focused on access to health care, becoming the nation’s first state to require all insurance companies doing business in the state to keep young adults on their parent’s insurance policies until they had their own or turned twenty-seven or thirty years old. The effort expanded health coverage to more than 900,000 Illinois residents through an effort called Kids Care and eventually, Family Care. The organizer who helped craft that effort, Cheri Andes, moved to Boston, where our affiliate, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization worked with Republican Governor Mitt Romney and a Democratic legislature to pass the country’s first statewide health coverage plan in 2006—parts of which informed the Affordable Care Act several years later. Just last week, more than 800 leaders in Boston met to push for controls on the high cost of pharmaceuticals there.
Full article and Source: The Story of Social Change | Boston Review
Against Black Homeownership
The real estate market is so structured by race that black families will never come out ahead.
In January 1973, George Romney, Nixon’s enigmatic Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, administered an open-ended moratorium on its 1968 initiatives to open up single-family homeownership to low-income borrowers by providing government-backed mortgages. The experiment to make homeownership accessible to everyone ended abruptly with massive foreclosures and abandoned houses, but the questions ignited by these policies persisted. Some analysts insisted that the failure of HUD’s homeownership programs was proof positive that poor people were ill equipped for the responsibilities of homeownership. African Americans experience homeownership in ways that rarely produce the financial benefits typically enjoyed by middle-class white Americans.And they insisted that it more specifically implicated low-income African Americans as “incapable” homeowners. Others pointed to HUD’s obvious mismanagement of these programs as the real culprit in their demise, and, importantly, how the programs gave an industry already known for its racial bias new opportunities to exploit low-income African-Americans. But the lessons from HUD’s experiment were muddled by other economic sensibilities, including the commitment to private property and the centrality of homeownership to the American economy.
Today, homeownership, even for low-income and poor people, is reflexively advised as a way to emerge from poverty, develop assets, and build wealth more generally. The historic levels of wealth inequality that continue to distinguish African Americans from whites are powerful reminders of how the exclusion of Blacks from this asset has generationally impaired Black families in comparison with their white peers. Owning a home as a way to build wealth is touted as an advantage over public or government-sponsored housing. It grounds the assumption that it is better to own than rent. And the greatest assumption of all is that homeownership is the superior way to live in the United States. This, of course, is tied to another indelible truth that homeownership is a central cog in the U.S. economy. Its pivotal role as an economic barometer and motor means that there are endless attempts to make it more accessible to ever-wider groups of people. While these are certainly statements of fact, they should not be confused as statements on the advisability of suturing economic well-being to a privately owned asset in a society where the value of that asset will be weighed by the race or ethnicity of whoever possesses it.
The assumption that a mere reversal of exclusion to inclusion would upend decades of institutional discrimination underestimated the investments in the economy organized around race and property. The concept of race and especially racial inferiority helped to establish the “economic floor” in the housing market. One’s proximity to African Americans individually, as well as to their communities, helped to determine the value of one’s property. This revealed another reality. Markets, as in the means by which the exchange of commodities is facilitated, do not exist in vacuums, nor do abstract notions of “supply and demand” dictate their function. Markets are conceived and constituted by desire, imagination, and social aspirations, among other malleable factors. This does not mean that markets are not real, but that they are not shaped by need alone. They are shaped by political, social, economic, and in the case of housing, racial concerns. And in the United States, these market conditions were shaped and stoked by economic actors that stood to gain by curtailing access to one portion of the market while then flooding another with credit, capital, and indiscriminate access to distressed and substandard homes.
HUD’s crisis in its homeownership programs in the 1970s reveal deeper and more systemic problems with the pursuit of homeownership as a way to improve the quality of one’s life. It is undeniable that homeownership in the United States has been “one of the important ways in which Americans have traditionally acquired financial capital” and that the “tax advantages, the accumulation of equity, and the increased value of real estate property enable homeowners to build economic assets. . . . These assets can be used to educate one’s children, to take advantage of business opportunities, to meet financial emergencies, and to provide for retirement.” Investment in homeownership, and its role in the process of the personal accumulation of capital, has been fundamental to the good life in the United States.
Full Article and Source: Against Black Homeownership | Boston Review
Michelle Obama’s popularity is a remarkable political feat. Her ascent into the public spotlight, after all, began as a receptacle of rightwing misogynoir. From the suggestions that she was ill-tempered to the hideous portrayals of her as male or some kind of primatial hybrid, Obama endured scrutiny unprecedented in the history of the role of first lady. This was hardly surprising given that the pageantry and pomp of the office had become synonymous with white and wealthy “ladies.” Her opponents were quick to cast Obama—the dark skinned, Chicago native—as decidedly un-ladylike, characterizing her instead as an anti-American political militant.
Becoming is an exquisite lesson in creating political ideology—one that I find troubling.
Sensitive to these portrayals, Obama acquiesced when her staff asked her to soften her gestures and play down her political contributions to Barack’s first campaign run. In her new book, Becoming, Obama describes how campaign aids encouraged her to “play to my strengths and to remember the things I most enjoyed talking about, which was my love for my husband and kids, my connection with working mothers, and my proud Chicago roots.” Together, the Obamas became disciplined in responding to the racist attacks, in part due the desire not to confirm the stereotypes. As Obama has famously said, “when they go low, we go high.”
The strategy worked. A recent Gallup poll listed Obama as the most “admired” woman in the United States. Becoming sold a breathtaking 1.4 million copies in its first week, and its success is partly due to the perception that this is Obama’s response to the years of silence—her chance to finally break free from adherence to the public rituals of U.S. power. And, indeed, Obama’s book is her story in her own words—authentic and refreshingly un-ladylike. She endears herself to a broad audience as she freely recalls smoking marijuana with a boyfriend in her car, having pre-marital sex, living at home well into her thirties even after she was married, having troubles conceiving both of her children, yelling in arguments with Barack, and feeling bitter as she was expected to carry most of the burdens of her household after marriage. Free of the pretense often effused by those with wealth and power, Obama comes off as ordinary and relatable.
In Becoming, Obama describes the value of telling one’s story this way: “Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” For Obama, a person’s story is an affirmation of their space in the world, the right to be and belong. “In sharing my story,” she says, “I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why. . . . Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” The root of discrimination, Obama implies, including the ugly discrimination she faced as first lady, is misunderstanding. Sharing personal narratives, then, offers a way for people to fully see each other and to overcome our differences.
This message has resonated widely, but especially with black women, for whom Becoming has been a source of pride and celebration. Black women have paid hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to crowd into stadiums on her book tour, which speaks not only to the celebrity of Obama, but the depths of disrespect and invisibility that black women in the United States experience. Indeed, black women in this country are so debased and ignored that it often feels as if the success and public adoration of Obama can lift and make visible all black women—a process Obama herself encourages.
Her story is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other.
Yet despite all the optimism and goodwill that Obama embraces and inspires, I find Becoming troubling. Sticking to her strategy for success, Obama reassures her reader repeatedly that she is not a “political” person. Instead Obama describes herself as a “child of the mainstream” who “never stopped reading People magazine or let go of my love for a good sitcom. . . . And to this day nothing pleases me more than the tidy triumph delivered by a home-makeover show.” But as someone who has been around politics since she was a child (her father was a precinct captain in the Democratic Party) and is now, domestically and internationally, one of the most well-known ambassadors of the United States, this denial is not modesty, it is misleading. Indeed, far from being apolitical, Obama is politically sophisticated, and any reader of her book should treat her that way.
Becoming, after all, is an exquisite lesson in creating ideology. As a political insider with broad pop culture appeal, Obama wields enormous influence in shaping discourse and opinion on critical issues concerning race, gender, public policy, and how we define progress in general. Lauren Mims, a former assistant director for the White House project “Educational Excellence for African Americans,” has even undertaken an initiative to create a curriculum for Becoming that she says will “disrupt the traditional practice of talking about black girls in pejorative ways and center them and their unique experiences to study how we can support them.”
Obama, then, is not just telling stories; she is shaping our understanding of the world we live in, which is why it is so critical that we, as a public, interrogate her ideology. When we do, we might see that her story is not in search of the collective experience but is a celebration of personal fulfillment—the kind of self-involved, “live your truth”-inspired homilies that middle-class and rich women tell each other. Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy. This is unfortunate because personal narratives—including Obama’s—do have power. When stitched together and told honestly, they can create a map of shared experience that raises the possibility of collective action as a way to transform the individual circumstance. This is certainly true of poor and working-class black women whose personal stories expose the racism, sexism, and general inequality of U.S. society. These stories relentlessly pierce the treacherous idea that the United States is free, democratic, and just, and they prove the axiom of black feminism that the personal is political.
Born in 1964, Obama has no recollection of the political strife—including multiple uprisings in response to police violence and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—that unfolded in Chicago neighborhoods during her childhood. Instead, her memories revolve around her family’s cramped apartment on the Southside of Chicago, and her narration of her working-class family’s history perfectly captures the systematic way that African Americans were excluded from the vast bounty created in the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Indeed, as a child, Obama was palpably aware that her circumstances were vastly different from those of the adults around her. While their potential was truncated by rampant racial discrimination, Obama was able to attend a promising new magnet high school called Whitney Young. She then goes on to Princeton University and eventually Harvard Law School, and by the mid-1980s, Obama was earning a six-figure salary at one of the most highly regarded law firms in downtown Chicago. By any measure, she and her equally successful brother, Craig Robinson, overcame circumstances that many of their peers inevitably succumbed to.
Obama’s book reflects the diminished view of public programs and the power of the state as a vehicle to create meaningful opportunities for African Americans.
Racism does exist for Obama, but these two realities—the history of structural segregation that she and her brother emerged from and their subsequent black success—shape her perception of racism as less an institutional phenomenon and more an unfortunate residue from the past. This does not negate its realness, but she sees its manifestation largely as a “deep weariness . . . a cynicism bred from a thousand small disappointments over time.” She had seen it in both her grandfathers, “spawned by every goal they’d abandoned and every compromise they’d had to make.” It was why the neighbor had stopped mowing the lawn or even keeping track of where her kids went after school. And “it lived in every piece of trash tossed carelessly in the grass at our local park and every ounce of malt liquor drained before dark. It lived in every last thing we deemed unfixable, including ourselves.”
One of Obama’s best friends growing up was Santita Jackson, one of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s daughters. In Becoming, Obama points to Reverend Jackson’s talking points in his 1984 presidential run as an inspiring message of racial uplift. She writes enthusiastically about how Jackson
toured the country, mesmerizing crowds with thundering calls for black people to shake off the undermining ghetto stereotypes and claim their long-denied political power. He preached a message of relentless, let’s-do-this self-empowerment. . . . He had school kids pledge to turn off the TV and devote two hours to their homework each night. He made parents promise to stay involved. He pushed against the feelings of failure that permeated so many African American communities, urging people to quit with the self-pity and take charge of their own destiny. “Nobody, but nobody,” he’d yell, “is too poor to turn off the TV two hours a night.”
Conversely, Obama saw how other “extraordinary and accomplished people”—including black women such as herself—had managed the skepticism they were surrounded by:
All of them had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals. . . . I’d never been someone who dwelled on the more demoralizing parts of being African American. I’d been raised to think positively. I’d absorbed my family’s love and parents’ commitment to seeing us succeed. . . . My purpose had always been to see past my neighborhood—to look ahead and overcome. And I had.
In Obama’s telling, then, racism is not the defining feature of black life, and her profound success is a testament to the ways that striving and self-motivation are the difference between those who succeed and those who do not.
The absence of materiality in Obama’s understanding of racism in contemporary life underlies her sharp rebuke of Reverend Jeremiah Wright in Becoming. Known for his fiery sermons condemning the racism, militarism, sexism, and oppression in U.S. society, Reverend Wright became a thorn in the side of the Obamas during the 2008 campaign when it was “discovered” that the Obamas were members of his church. The mainstream media delved into his sermons and described some of Wright’s incisive comments as “hate speech,” which worked to fuel the presumed radicalism or militancy of the Obamas. The most widely circulated of these sermons showed Wright at his incendiary best:
The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America—that’s in the Bible—for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.
In Becoming, Obama dismisses Wright’s experiences and viewpoints as him “careening through callous and inappropriate fits of rage and resentment at white America, as if white people were to blame for every woe.” She accuses him of viewing “race through a lens of cranky mistrust.” Wright and older African Americans, she says, became “cranky” because of legal strictures of segregation that gave rise to a “narrow mindedness” in matters regarding race. Obama goes on to conflate the bitterness of older African Americans with the racism of older white people, such as Barack Obama’s white grandmother who felt afraid of black men on the streets. That fear, she writes, “was a reminder of how our country’s distortions about race could be two-sided—that the suspicion and stereotyping ran both ways.”
It is a diplomatic reading—but ultimately a clumsy effort to reach across the profound racial division in the United States. Consider the political ramifications of such a reading. By treating them as two sides of the same coin, Obama is equating African American anger—which is rooted in material deprivation and human subjugation—with white fear, which is rooted in racial stereotypes. These two worldviews are not the product of the same generational experiences and reducing them to such forecloses the possibility that African Americans could ever find real redress to the inequality produced by centuries of slavery and legal discrimination.
Becoming normalizes power and the status quo while sending the message that the rest of us only need to find our place in the existing social hierarchy to be happy.
Moreover, Obama’s reading reinforces the perception that African Americans’ persistent demands against racism are not much more than “crankiness” or complaining. When combined with Obama’s own emphasis on striving as a way to overcome racial discrimination, this narrative reduces racial inequality to one of psychological impairment that can be overcome through sheer determination and a positive attitude. She fails to see how it was bitter struggle against real institutions that created the new world she was able to thrive in. Indeed, Whitney Young high school was built on an empty lot that had seen multiple uprisings over the course of the 1960s. Those uprisings eventually caused the political establishment to acquiesce and take concrete steps to create a black middle class. Elected officials invested in schools such as Whitney Young while also exerting enormous pressure on the private sector to end the racial enclosure of segregation that had slowly suffocated Obama’s parent’s social mobility. The crucible of the 1960s widely expanded access to homeownership, college education, white collar professions, and formal entry into electoral politics for African Americans.
Obama and a thin layer of others were beneficiaries of these transformations in the U.S. political economy. The short-lived reforms created by the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s lowered the rate of black poverty by expanding the federal bureaucracy and creating new job opportunities for black workers. But as the momentum from the political insurgency of the 1960s waned, political support for these programs evaporated. And as more time passed from the high point of the movement, the hardship experienced by most African Americans grew deeper. In 1964, the year Obama was born, black unemployment was 9.6 percent; by 1975, it had crept up to 15 percent; and while Obama was at Princeton University, in 1983, black unemployment inched up even further to a bewildering 20 percent—the highest ever recorded. Nevertheless, the successes of the few were held up as evidence that it was not the system that was broken; instead, black people simply weren’t taking advantage of all that the United States had to offer.
To make sense of the persistent low wages, housing instability, higher rates of poverty, and deepening social crisis that marred black communities, the political focus shifted violently to personal responsibility or a lack thereof. In doing so, the infrastructure of publicly funded institutions—including public housing and other forms of social welfare—that had been slowly chipping away at inequality and poverty were dismissed as unnecessary and financially gutted. The picture of success for some African Americans—whether they were lawyers or young elected officials—and continued hardship for others created a distorted picture of black America. Like a fun house mirror, it enlarged features such as personal persistence and responsibility while pushing others, such as the role of institutional racial discrimination, further to the margins.
The crises in this country cannot be resolved one person at a time, and recipes for self-fulfillment cannot create the social forces necessary to transform neighborhoods.
Obama’s book reflects this diminished view of public programs and the power of the state as a vehicle to create meaningful opportunities for African Americans. With the public sector out of view, her conception of social progression is freighted with “public-private partnership” ventures and mentorship steered by “gifted” individuals. Social change is thus based on the goodwill and interests of well-endowed funders and well-meaning individuals while inequality is essentially accepted as something to navigate rather than dismantle.
If this reading seems unfair, consider Obama’s 2013 visit to the Chicago high school, William R. Harper, and her recollection of it in Becoming. As an institution, Harper stands at the intersection of racism, poverty, and violence. In 2012, twenty-one of its students were injured and eight killed from persistent gun violence. Obama chose to visit Harper in 2013 as she became increasingly focused on gun violence in Chicago. Just weeks before, a fifteen-year-old black girl who had just performed at Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade was shot and killed in a Southside neighborhood approximately one mile from the Obama family home.
On the day of her visit, Obama met with twenty-two students who had all been psychologically scarred by their constant exposure to gun violence. They relayed with frightening detail walking down the middle of the street to avoid stray gunfire and their routines of clearly identifying escape routes in case they needed to run. In the course of the meeting, one of the Harper students remarked to Obama, “It’s nice that you are here and all . . . but what are you actually going to do about all of this?”
In her telling, Obama did not have much to say to them: “Honestly, I know you’re dealing with a lot here, but no one’s going to save you anytime soon. Most people in Washington aren’t even trying. A lot of them don’t even know you exist.” It was an honest statement—one we are expected to read as refreshingly honest and “real”—but one that betrayed the logical conclusions of seeing racism as a manifestation of psychology, bad intentions, or simple ignorance. When unmoored from the institutions of power and class domination, racism becomes impossible to address, combat, and dismantle.
In Becoming, Obama also recalls that Englewood (the neighborhood Harper is in) had been considered a “tough” area when she was growing up, but seeing the shuttered windows and dilapidated structures in 2013 showed how much more ingrained its problems had become. She blames white flight: “I thought back to my own childhood and my own neighborhood, and how the word ‘ghetto’ got thrown around like a threat. The mere suggestion of it . . . caused stable, middle-class families to bail preemptively for the suburbs, worried their property values would drop. ‘Ghetto’ signaled that a place was both black and hopeless.”
When unmoored from the institutions of power and class domination, racism becomes impossible to address, combat, and dismantle.
But while white flight was certainly part of Englewood’s history of decline, white people abandoned Englewood more than a half century ago. Englewood’s problems of today are both historical and contemporary. The neighborhood has continued to suffer because successive city administrations have starved it and other poor and working-class black communities of desperately needed resources, opting instead to redirect those funds to whiter and wealthier sections of the city. In 2012, just months before Obama’s visit to Englewood, Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago and Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, shuttered fifty-two public schools in Chicago—the largest simultaneous school closure in U.S. history. Meanwhile, Chicago has dedicated 40 percent of its budget towards policing.
Almost half of black Chicagoans, men and women, between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are both unemployed and out of school. It is an economic situation that produces crime while arrests and imprisonment reinforce the tight circuit of oppression and brutality. There are estimates that 29 percent of black women in Chicago’s Southside suffer from untreated PTSD. These are material manifestations of racism, but Obama’s telling treats them as sad but ultimately disconnected events that are the simple product of partisan politics, pessimism, bullying, even hate—nothing quite tangible enough to put one’s hands on and dismantle.
Obama, who avoids any analysis of the systemic or systematic feature of racial inequality, offered the children at Harper this lesson: “progress is slow . . . they couldn’t afford to simply sit and wait for change to come. Many Americans didn’t want their taxes raised, and Congress couldn’t even pass a budget, let alone rise above petty partisan bickering, so there weren’t going to be billion-dollar investments in education or magical turnarounds for their community.” In the end, she told them to “use school.”
There are estimates that 29 percent of black women in Chicago’s Southside suffer from untreated PTSD. These are material manifestations of racism.
While the first lady of the United States does not hold a legislative position and thus is not able to secure funding for a school in need, Obama’s normalizing gaze at inequality, almost accepting it as a fact of nature, reinforces the status quo for her largely black audience—and that is a dangerous proposition. Obama shows the extent to which she has given up on the idea that demands can be made of the state. These children don’t have the luxury to “simply wait” for change, so their only option is to turn to their underfunded, lightly resourced school and work hard amid stray gunfire to get themselves out.
This lesson—that personal striving is an important remedy to racial inequality—is given a sunny, optimistic sheen when Obama tells us that local “business owners” later donated funds so that those same twenty-two Harper kids could visit the White House, meet Barack Obama, and visit Howard University. Obama tells us that her hope was for the Harper students to see themselves as college students and use that as motivation to change their lives. As she triumphantly declares at the chapter’s end, “I was there to push back against the old and damning narrative about being a black urban kid in America, the one that foretold failure and hastened its arrival.”
It is important to distinguish Obama’s retreat to personal striving as not just the same old “respectability politics”—the belief that if African Americans just presented themselves as competent and upstanding citizens then they would be seen as entitled to the benefits of U.S. society. Even within the distorted framework of respectability politics, there was still an understanding of the materiality of racism, and there was a notion of collective endeavor—a “linked fate” among black Americans. In place of these politics, Obama concocts a kind of hybrid of middle-class feminism—with its focus on self-actualization, empowerment, and personal fulfillment—with wisps of J. D. Vance–style bootstrap uplift, which centers on hard work, education, and personal responsibility. By eschewing all “policy solutions,” she sends a profoundly dangerous political message: that individuals alone can change their circumstance.
The point is not to impose onto or require a more radical viewpoint from Obama when she does not have one, but rather to expose her ultimately conservative message.
Indeed, in Becoming, she details her endeavors to bring poor and working-class children into the White House so that she could personally encourage them. There are multiple examples of Obama using the power of her office to pluck up black and brown students here and there to, in her words, say, “You belong. You matter. I think very highly of you.” This is, without question, meaningful and valuable to the hundreds of young people who encountered Obama in person. Indeed, even the symbolic power of seeing a black president and first lady evokes the optimism that the Obamas often preach as antiseptic to the chaos of poverty. But, in reality, it also trivializes the enormity of the structural crisis and deprivation in communities such as Englewood. The crises in this country cannot be resolved one person at a time, and recipes for self-fulfillment cannot create the social forces necessary to transform neighborhoods.
In the period of struggle that bequeathed Obama the possibility of her improbable rise to the White House, Ella Baker, a radical black feminist and organizer within the civil rights movement, encouraged ordinary people to connect the dots of their oppression to a broader, unjust social order. Making these connections demonstrated the potential for an alliance of similarly aggrieved citizens and residents who don’t benefit from our social order but suffer from its disorder. As she said in 1969:
In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.
The point is not to impose onto or require a more radical viewpoint from Obama when she does not have one, but rather to expose her ultimately conservative message. Obama served as an inspiring role model—her personal story is extraordinary by any measure. But it is crucial for both her and us to acknowledge that it was made possible by the confluence of institutional changes and her own talents. For the children of Harper High and their parents who live with PTSD and other scars of urban and suburban life in the twenty-first century, we must reaffirm our commitment to the same kinds of institutional interventions—and beyond—that made her ascent possible.
Another world is possible, but it can only be built through a collective struggle that Obama no longer sees as necessary.