Wanted: A Plan for the Cities to Save Themselves Black Labor's Role in Transforming the Urban Landscape

Mike Friedman mikedf at amnh.org
Fri Aug 15 17:35:27 MDT 2003

The Black Commentator
Cover Story
Part I of a series
Wanted: A Plan for the Cities to Save Themselves
Black Labor's Role in Transforming the Urban Landscape

Rampaging capital lays waste to the nation and the world – the principal 
source of war and the despoiler of American cities. By now, every civilized 
segment of humanity has come to realize that a wild herd has been loosed on 
the planet, and has captured the government of the United States. 
Murderously jealous of all freedoms except its own, this green-eyed monster 
screams its demands at the community of nations, strips them naked of their 
sovereignty, distorts their institutions and shreds their dreams to suit 
its rapacious purposes, then leaves the people exhausted, spent, and more 
impoverished than before.

It is a sadistic force – or rather, hyperactive capital is deployed as a 
weapon by sadistic men who call their victims “markets” and force them to 
dance, jump, and sing capital’s praises as they line up for the big event: 
The Race to the Bottom, a competition to decide who can be exploited most, 
soonest. Everybody loses, especially the winners, who get to the bottom first.

The race has become intolerable, not only for the peoples of the Third 
World, where wages have been depressed below levels required for the 
maintenance of life, but also for the battered and confused population of 
the United States, the folks who thought that “their” corporations would 
never treat them like “foreigners.” Late in the game, American workers 
discovered that capital has no nation and no loyalties, just an omnivorous 
appetite. Unrestrained capital comes and goes as it pleases – the only 
freedom that its handlers recognize. Putting a leash on the monster is 
humanity’s common mission, from Mombasa to Montevideo to Milwaukee. The 
alternative is to be chewed up and spit out, each “market” in its turn.

Horizontal mobility

African Americans know what it is like to be pushed and pulled around by 
capital, having once been chained to the marketplace as human goods, 
capital investments. The African American story began when capital made 
humans into commodities. This unwanted intimacy with capital did not end 
with Emancipation. Masters of capital alternately chased the freedmen away 
from land and work, or nailed them in place through both legal and lethal 
instruments. Blacks learned that capital creates a social marketplace that 
values some people’s labor above others, and devalues everything in the 
vicinity of those places that Black people seek to call home. Indeed, 
“home” has been a transient thing for successive generations of African 
Americans, never quite knowing if they were running to or from somewhere, 
always wondering what their “worth” would be at the next stop.

Nobody consulted Black folks when the powers-that-be decided to flip the 
script on human living patterns after World War Two, transferring wealth 
from the central cities to new places called suburbs, a national project 
subsidized by the people’s money that added value to previously cheap 
locations and left the urban cores Black and hollow. In America, divestment 
goes with the racial territory, and freedom is defined as the right to 
break the social contract at will.

Capital both paved the way for, and followed, whites to the sprawling 
horizons. Behind lay dark, devalued people encamped atop perfectly good 
urban infrastructures, soon to be assaulted by redlining and rot, the quiet 
crimes of capital’s unseen hand. Purposely excluded from the suburban 
mega-project – the largest sustained capital transfer in national, if not 
world, history – Blacks translated their growing presence in shrinking 
cities into nominal political power.

Nothing could possibly have prepared the Black body politic for its post 
civil-rights era encounter with urban electoral power. The Western 
Hemisphere had seen nothing like the Great American White/Capital Exodus 
since the Maya abandoned their cities around 900 A.D. A people who had been 
flung, chased and lured across the geographic and social spaces of the 
continent found themselves in charge or on the cusp of power in many of the 
great urban centers of the nation in the early Seventies – just as the 
postwar boom was going bust and political support for cities had passed its 

Whose mess?

The massive postwar withdrawal of capital and whites from American cities, 
set in motion by publicly financed, corporate-inspired transportation 
policies, shocked the sensibilities of much of the world – and still does. 
How could the planet’s greatest economic power (in 1950, the U.S. 
manufactured 70 percent of the world’s durable goods) whose skylines 
dazzled the global imagination, suddenly forsake the social investment 
model of every previous human civilization? But such is the caprice of 
capital, which saw in the segregationist imperatives of white Americans the 
opportunity to create another America, with a new set of housing, lifestyle 
and product demands – the greatest development project ever known.

However, the cities and their Black populations couldn’t go anywhere, and 
descended into crisis. Most Blacks and whites saw only the (very real) 
racial aspect of the urban free fall – although from different 
perspectives. Whites in general, including much of organized labor, 
pretended that the crisis of the inner cities was not a labor or national 
problem, at all. The broad white consensus held that it was perfectly 
logical for both corporations and average people to put distance between 
themselves and Black “pathologies.” They would be singing a different tune 
when their turn came to be rationalized out of productive existence.

In fact, we know in hindsight that by the early Seventies the domestic 
version of the Race to the Bottom had begun. The withdrawal of capital from 
the cities, creating new markets while satisfying white segregationist 
impulses, was accompanied by divestment of northern manufacturing in favor 
of the lower wage, non-union sun belt – the first lap in what would become 
a global competition for the benefit of capital.

Black unemployment, only 3.8 percent among males in 1968 and 1969, soon 
soared to the astronomical levels that inner-city dwellers have come to 
accept as part of the urban landscape. And increasingly, Black mayors and 
city councils were expected to do something about it.

Newly ascendant Black politicians were immediately challenged to correct 
the mess made by white and capital flight – the Great Urban Divestment.  We 
focus here on African American politicians, because race was widely assumed 
to be at the heart of the worsening national urban problem. After all, 
avoidance of Blacks is first-nature to American whites, so no further 
explanation of urban decline was necessary – for either of the racial 
parties. Thus, Black cities failed because they were Black, but New England 
and upstate New York were said to be in trouble because their factories 
were old and outdated.

Capital’s one-two punch left the cities wondering what hit them. The 
implosion of so many American cities was the result of both general 
divestment of cities and a decision to first move and then shut down the 
nation’s manufacturing base. One of the causes is well understood, while 
the other is entangled in questions of race. The central fact is that both 
of these nation-shaking, overlapping divestments were driven by capital’s 
desire for higher profits. The stability of the nation did not figure in 
the calculation.

Black politicians set out to prove that they could run cities just as well 
as whites. Besides making city administrations look more like the voters, 
most African American officeholders had one paramount goal: bring back 
capital and jobs, which was soon amended to, any kind of jobs. To that goal 
was later added: bring back the whites; more recently amended to, bring 
back the suburban Blacks.

Beggars’ politics
The revitalization “strategy” – if it can be called a strategy – was, 
essentially, to give away the public’s assets. In addition to direct gifts 
of land and structures, plus tax abatements stretching into future 
generations, an array of federal and state programs evolved to subsidize 
the return of private capital and affluent populations. Municipal powers of 
eminent domain were made available to condemn, clear and shape the economic 
and physical contours of the city to capital’s specifications, all wrapped 
up in a bright, freshly cut ribbon.

Typically, City Hall asks only that some portion of jobs and contracts go 
to the locals. Big city mayors have been reduced to a bizarre class of 
beggars, lining up at corporate doorsteps with gifts of public resources. 
Urban executives extend permanent invitations to private capital managers 
to do whatever they want with constituents’ property and futures, but 
please do something! Rarely do they have anything resembling a plan of 
their own, beyond a firm determination to accept whatever capital offers, 
and a willingness to out-grovel the next mayor in line.

Cities can no more hope to win this bidding war among themselves – a 
municipal Race to the Bottom – than Third World nations can expect to earn 
the lasting loyalty of multinational capital through gifts of their 
sovereignty and resources – an analogy that has become common during the 
past decade.

The rules of the game must be changed if the words “democracy” and 
“development” are to have any meaning to city dwellers:

1 - No project can be viewed as “development” that does not on balance 
benefit the people who already live in the city. Cities are comprised of 
people. It is a contradiction in terms to pretend that cities are 
“improved” by projects that lure and serve future populations, to the 
general detriment of existing residents. This principle has particular 
relevance to gentrification, but also to the full range of commercial and 
industrial projects to be considered.
2 - City government must act as an engine for economic and social uplift, 
and an arbiter of who is, and who is not, a good corporate citizen of the 
city. These are the general aims of the Living Wage Movement: to “raise the 
floor” for all workers by barring from city contracts, subsidies and other 
favors those companies that fail to provide minimum terms of employment. 
Companies that benefit from the people’s poverty must be locked out of the 
public treasury.

3 - The totality of a city’s resources, public and private – every 
thoroughfare, building, cable connection, vacant lot, vista, riverbank, 
swamp and repository of human skills – must be viewed as a public asset, 
the people’s bargaining chips and a moral trust.
Redefining what’s public

Cities (and counties) have formidable powers to arrange and enhance their 
assets – and do so all the time to suit the demands of capital. Capital 
flight (divestment) and the resulting municipal bidding wars have led 
cities with large low-income populations to fritter away the assets that 
were left to them, and to view government as a facilitator of whatever 
schemes “developers” present. Basic public functions such as zoning have 
become processes through which corporations plot the destinies of cities. 
Elected officials are neutered and their publics are not served, the root 
of the political crisis that afflicts Black and brown cities.

But it is worse than that. Few cities have ever audited their assets to 
determine how the various parts interact with one another: how population 
densities and nexuses of activity create potential opportunities for or 
threats to internal commerce, for example. In the absence of comprehensive 
audits, there can be no such thing as city planning, which for the people’s 
intents and purposes hardly exists in the United States.

Capital makes plans and gathers data, constantly. Corporate planners dig 
for data that serves their schemes, to reposition or remove populations 
they have no use for; to cash in on layers of public subsidies with no 
strings attached (because the city’s bargaining agent knows less about the 
city than they do); to leave quickly by nightfall.

Urban America’s development menu is dictated almost entirely by the whims 
of private capital. If it’s not on the corporate menu, you can’t have it, 
and if you choose an item from their menu, you must be prepared to 
subsidize the project, transfer public assets to private hands, defer 
taxation for a generation, and shape your urban vision to that of the 

If cities truly had no value, of course, gentrification would not be an 
issue. In fact, the Great American White/Capital Exodus that followed World 
War Two has exhausted itself. Capital must be made to pay the price of 
re-admission. Cities must identify and arrange the totality of their 
assets, protect them, and decide precisely what kind of development can be 
allowed or encouraged to occur, in which places, for the enhancement of the 
whole city. This is the real stuff of democracy.

Capital always has a plan. We have seen where these plans lead: to a 
harrowing roller coaster ride that ultimately ends at the bottom. If the 
people of American cities are not to be victimized by the next wave of 
investment-divestment by the managers of capital, they must formulate their 
own plans for development of the ground on which they stand.

For African Americans, transformed by the whims of capital into primarily 
an urban people, there is no alternative but to “cast down your bucket 
where you are.”

Capital’s “Trojan Horse”

The cities are desperately in need of planning to meet the people’s needs, 
and access to capital to implement the people’s vision of urban life. The 
men who set in motion the disinvestments that nearly destroyed America’s 
cities, and then turned on the working people of the suburbs and the 
sunbelt, sending their jobs to foreign shores, did it with other people’s 
money. This is the open secret that the managers of capital want to keep 

An estimated $7 trillion of the money that capital managers play with comes 
from pension funds, the deferred wages of American working people. The 
grand schemes and lifestyles of the men who brought us urban blight and who 
now pit American workers against dollars-a-day labor in the Third World, 
are financed by tens of millions of shareholders who have until recently 
had little say in how their money is invested.  These “stakeholders” are 
knocking on the boardroom doors, demanding that corporations account for 
the social as well as financial consequences of their actions.

Organized labor’s pensions are the biggest single source of investment 
capital. The managers of Enron lost or stole $1 billion in pension money, 
estimates Tom Croft of the Heartland Network, part of an alliance that 
promotes “jobs-oriented investment strategies.” By Croft’s count, Wall 
Street threw away $1 trillion in pension funds during the Nineties 
bacchanal and bust.

The “social accountability movement” is “capitalism’s Trojan Horse,” warned 
Professor Jon Entine, speaking at a June gathering of the rightwing 
American Enterprise Institute, in Washington. “[T]he disruptive impact of 
what is essentially an anti-free market movement
is all to real and 
growing,” said Entine.

Organized labor is at the center of this movement, finally awakened to the 
fact that the managers of capital have hijacked the people’s money – public 
dollars and private pensions – for their own enrichment. In the process, 
these “free marketers” have disrupted the people’s lives and plunged the 
world into an all-against-all competition for a job, any job.

Black labor knows that story all too well. Twenty percent of African 
Americans live in union households, and their jobs are disappearing faster 
than anyone else’s as corporate divestment stamps out what’s left of the 
nation’s manufacturing base. Black labor, like the vast bulk of African 
Americans, has the greatest stake in the sustenance and empowerment of the 
nation’s cities. They have no choice but to cast down their buckets where 
they are.

Just after World War Two, gangsters hijacked Teamsters pension funds to 
found a town that has grown to a metropolis in the desert – a place where a 
city should not be. America’s other urban centers are far better situated 
than Las Vegas. They too can survive, with the help of union brains and 
money, guided by the powerful social message and historical experience of 
Black unionists. They know what the bosses are up to.

Part II of this series will appear in the next issue of BC.

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