The Story of Social Change | Boston Review

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.

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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 | Boston Review II KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR

RACE

Against Black Homeownership

The real estate market is so structured by race that black families will never come out ahead.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR

Image: Flickr

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

What Michelle Obama Gets Wrong About Racism

Succeeding While Black

Michelle Obama’s new book reduces racial inequality to a matter of psychological impairment that can be overcome through grit and grin. This is a dangerous proposition.

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR

Becoming

Michelle Obama
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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Source: What Michelle Obama Gets Wrong About Racism

Inside the “Most Incarcerated” Zip Code in the Country | The New Republic

Inside the “Most Incarcerated” Zip Code in the Country 53206, a heavily African American neighborhood north of downtown Milwaukee, suffers from all manner of ills—not least of which are the myths of criminality that continue to surround it.

Robinson’s family came to Milwaukee from Chicago in the 1980s because, as Robinson put it, “Chicago was getting out of pocket.” With crime rising and jobs disappearing in the Windy City, she told me, “my mom wanted a better place for us to live.” But Robinson’s mother could never have anticipated the crucibles awaiting her daughter in Wisconsin—the array of social and political deficits associated with the five numbers that came at the end of her listed address: 53206, now notoriously known as the most incarcerated zip code in the country.

The neighborhood’s rectangular outline sits like a brick just north of the Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in downtown Milwaukee, where the 2020 Democratic National Convention will be held next summer. In addition to its high incarceration rates, 53206, a heavily African American district, suffers from every manner of social ill, from socioeconomic stagnation to poor health. The Democratic primary field is teeming with proposals to address these ingrained injustices, and the party’s eventual candidate will also have a personal incentive to pay attention to what is happening in 53206: Its residents, among others in Milwaukee, may well prove to be the key to Democrats’ hopes of winning the battleground state of Wisconsin and unseating Donald Trump in the presidential election.

As long as those residents can gain access to the ballot, that is.African Americans represent nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population, but their political clout has been diminished by laws that suppress the black vote. There is also the problem of African Americans choosing not to vote: Black turnout in Wisconsin dropped nearly 19 percent between the 2012 to the 2016 elections—a clear sign that, despite their historic need to mobilize black voters, Democrats haven’t been meeting the challenge especially well of late.

Source: Inside the “Most Incarcerated” Zip Code in the Country | The New Republic

Elijah Cummings’ Death Leaves a Void – Rolling Stone

Elijah Cummings Was Not Done

The House Oversight chairman died too soon at 68, while working on his deathbed to ensure this country measured up to his standards

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., speaks during a luncheon at the National Press Club in WashingtonCummings, Washington, USA – 07 Aug 2019Patrick Semansky/AP/ShutterstockEven with the deaths of our elders today and the 400th anniversary of chattel slavery, we are often reminded that this terrible American past is within the reach of our oral, recorded history. Elijah Cummings, who died Thursday at 68, was the grandson of sharecroppers, the black tenant farmers who rented land from white owners after the Civil War. Cummings once recounted to 60 Minutes that, when he was sworn into Congress in 1996 following a special election in Maryland’s 7th District, his father teared up. A typical, uplifting American story would be a son talking about his dad’s pride at such a moment, and there was that. But Cummings’ father, Ron, also asked him a series of questions. Isn’t this the place where they used to call us slaves? “Yes, sir.”Isn’t this the place where they used to call us three-fifths of a man? “Yes, sir.”

Isn’t this the place where they used to call us chattel? “Yes, sir.”Then Ron told his son Elijah, according to the story: Now I see what I could have been had I had an opportunity. Forget the Horatio Alger narratives; that is a story of generational ascendance that actually sounds relatable to me as someone who has grown up black in America.Sixty-eight should be too early for anyone to die in the era of modern medicine, but it somehow didn’t feel premature for Cummings. It wouldn’t feel premature for me, either. Racism kills us black men and women faster, that much has been documented.

Cummings had seen the consequences of racism in the mirror every day since he was 11, bearing a scar from an attack by a white mob when he and a group of black boys integrated the public (and ostensibly desegregated) pool in South Baltimore. Perhaps a shorter life was simply an American reality to which he had consigned himself. Or, he had just read the science.

When speculation rumbled about whether he would run for the Senate in 2015, Cummings spoke openly about his own life expectancy.“When you reach 64 years old and you look at the life expectancy of an African-American man, which is 71.8 years, I ask myself, if I don’t say it now, when am I going to say it?” Cummings said, referring at the time to combative rants and snips at Republicans whom he perceived to be wasting the public’s time and money with nonsense like the Benghazi hearings.

He continued to speak up for what he considered was just, not just when president did wrong but also when it involved the police. The bullhorn seemed to never leave his hand and his voice never seemed to die out in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore cops in 2015. His willingness to speak up not just in defense of America but of us black Americans is why the passing of Cummings was a puncturing wound for anyone hoping for this nation to be true to what it promises on paper to all of its people. Worse, Cummings’ death leaves a void.

Only a few members of his own party have been as willing to speak as frankly as Cummings, or take as immediate action against the grift and madness that Republicans pass off as governance. “We are better than this!” was one of his frequent exhortations, and I am not sure that we were.It is tempting, and lazy, to encapsulate the Cummings legacy within the last few years. Pointing to his deft handling of his Republican “friend” Mark Meadows’ racist call-out of Rashida Tlaib in February or his grace in dealing with President Trump’s petulant insults about his beloved Baltimore even as he used his House Oversight powers to help begin perhaps the most significant impeachment inquiry yet launched into an American head of state. But there was more to the man and his patriotism than his pursuit of a corrupt president.Cummings was, as his widow, Maryland Democratic Party chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, put it in her statement, working “until his last breath.”

In a memo just last week, as he was ailing, Cummings stated he planned to subpoena both acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli and acting ICE Director Matthew Albence to testify on October 17, the day he would later pass away. (Both men agreed to testify, voluntarily, but the hearing has been postponed until the 24th.) Cummings also signed two subpoenas driven to him in Baltimore hours before his death, both dealing with the Trump administration’s coldhearted policy change to temporarily end the ability for severely ill immigrants to seek care in the United States. One of the young immigrant patients who had testified to a House Oversight subcommittee about this draconian Trump measure, a Honduran teenager named Jonathan Sanchez, told the assembled lawmakers, simply, “I don’t want to die.”

Cummings knew all too well that this is a country that kills people with its racism, and saw this president trying to do it. He went to his deathbed trying to change that America. His untimely death left that work undone, but that task is ours now.

Source: Elijah Cummings’ Death Leaves at Void – Rolling Stone

What Elijah Cummings Meant to Baltimore | The New Yorker I Jelani Cobb

U. S. Representative Elijah Cummings  1951- 2019

” . . . One other thing: democracy. Cummings, in his speeches, particularly those he gave in the past few years, insistently invoked it, and not in the inert way that elected officials tend to. He spoke of democracy as something vital and fragile and valuable, an inheritance that had to be safeguarded for future generations. When he spoke of HR-1, the exhaustive election-protection bill that the Democrats introduced in January, as their first piece of legislation of this Congress, he mentioned his ninety-two-year-old mother, who had died a year earlier. She was a former sharecropper, who implored him, “Do not let them take our votes away from us.” He viewed his chairmanship of the House Oversight and Reform Committee as part of the battle to protect voting rights. His death unleashes a flurry of speculation about whom the Democrats will choose to next lead the committee—Representative Carolyn Maloney, of New York, will serve as the acting chair—and how that person will oversee its portion of the impeachment inquiry. Those matters will be resolved at a future date. What remains clear is the void that Cummings’s absence leaves in his district and his country. This would have been the case at nearly any point in his quarter century in Congress. But it’s even more acute in this one. In a fiery bit of oratory delivered at the introduction of HR-1, he pledged to “fight to the death” in defense of voting and, thereby, democracy. It was a promise that he made good on.”

Source: What Elijah Cummings Meant to Baltimore | The New Yorker   

Rep. Cummings was a Baltimore native and attended Howard University, where he obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and served as student government president.

“Congressman Cummings has dedicated his life of service to uplifting and empowering the people he is sworn to represent,” his official biography says.

“He began his career of public service in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he served for 14 years and became the first African American in Maryland history to be named Speaker Pro Tem,” it says. “Since 1996, Congressman Cummings has proudly represented Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.” At the time of his death, he served as the Chair of the US House Oversight Committee.

He died on Oct.17,2019.

Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”

The Ghosts of Elaine, Arkansas, 1919 | by Jerome Karabel | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

The Ghosts of Elaine, Arkansas, 1919

Jerome KarabelArkansas State Archives

The body of Frances Hall, one of the few victims of the massacre who can be identified by name, thanks to the journalists Robert Whitaker and Ida B. Wells, near Elaine, Arkansas, October 1919

In America’s bloody history of racial violence, the little-known Elaine Massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas, which took place in October 1919, a century ago this week, may rank as the deadliest. The reasons why the event has remained shrouded and obscure, despite a shocking toll of bloodshed inflicted on the African-American inhabitants of Phillips County, speak to a legacy of white supremacy in the US and ruthless suppression of labor activism that disfigures American society to this day.Phillips County, located deep in the Arkansas Delta, was largely rural and three-quarters African-American; in the small town of Elaine, there were ten times as many black residents as white. The African Americans of Phillips County, like those throughout the South, were subjected to segregation and disenfranchisement, those twin pillars of white supremacy. But the black sharecroppers and tenant farmers there were also the victims of a particularly harsh form of repression known as “debt peonage.”

Under this system, they were loaned money or rented land by plantation owners; they were then forced to sell their crops to the owners at below-market rates and to purchase their food and other supplies from over-priced plantation stores, trapping them in a cycle of perpetual debt, with the owners keeping—and often doctoring—the accounts.In the spring of 1919, a group of Phillips County African-American sharecroppers and tenant farmers, many of them veterans who had recently returned from service overseas in World War I, decided to challenge this system by joining a union called the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA), which had been founded the year before by army veteran Robert Lee Hill, a black tenant farmer in Winchester, Arkansas. The union’s goal was “to advance the interest of the Negro, morally and intellectually,” and its constitution ended with a proclamation: “WE BATTLE FOR THE RIGHTS OF OUR RACE; IN UNION IS STRENGTH.”

Source: The Ghosts of Elaine, Arkansas, 1919 | by Jerome Karabel | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

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