Wanted: A Plan for the Cities to Save Themselves Black Labor's Role in Transforming the Urban Landscape
mikedf at amnh.org
Fri Aug 15 17:35:27 MDT 2003
The Black Commentator
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 capitals 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
humanitys common mission, from Mombasa to Montevideo to Milwaukee. The
alternative is to be chewed up and spit out, each market in its turn.
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 peoples 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 peoples 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 capitals 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
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 planets greatest economic power (in 1950, the U.S.
manufactured 70 percent of the worlds 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 couldnt 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.
Capitals 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
nations 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 capitals
desire for higher profits. The stability of the nation did not figure in
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.
The revitalization strategy if it can be called a strategy was,
essentially, to give away the publics 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 capitals 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
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 peoples poverty must be locked out of the
3 - The totality of a citys 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 peoples bargaining chips and a moral trust.
Redefining whats 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 peoples
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 citys bargaining agent knows less about the
city than they do); to leave quickly by nightfall.
Urban Americas development menu is dictated almost entirely by the whims
of private capital. If its not on the corporate menu, you cant 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.
Capitals Trojan Horse
The cities are desperately in need of planning to meet the peoples needs,
and access to capital to implement the peoples vision of urban life. The
men who set in motion the disinvestments that nearly destroyed Americas
cities, and then turned on the working people of the suburbs and the
sunbelt, sending their jobs to foreign shores, did it with other peoples
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 labors 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 Crofts count, Wall
Street threw away $1 trillion in pension funds during the Nineties
bacchanal and bust.
The social accountability movement is capitalisms 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 peoples money public
dollars and private pensions for their own enrichment. In the process,
these free marketers have disrupted the peoples 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 elses as corporate divestment stamps out whats left of the
nations manufacturing base. Black labor, like the vast bulk of African
Americans, has the greatest stake in the sustenance and empowerment of the
nations cities. They have no choice but to cast down their buckets where
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. Americas 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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