Sunday, 20 April 2008

This American Life
Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History

Excerpt from This American Life


Class and Race

"I do not mean to suggest that the great 'Midwest Metropolis' is any more racist than other U.S. cities or the broader national society of which it a part. I hope the first and introductory chapter and the study as a whole will adequately explain why I have focused specifically on my home city and its broader metropolitan area.

"[Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History] does not deny that a significant and accelerated number and percentage of black Chicagoans and Americans have moved into 'bourgeois' middle and upper strata since [Martin Luther] King’s day. At the same time and in a related vein, the title is not meant to suggest that racism is the only significant societal problem or barrier faced by the city’s, region’s, and nation’s disproportionately poor African-Americans. Those people struggle, I think, with what King called 'class issues—issues that relate to the privileged as over against the underprivileged' and which are hardly limited to race. Chicago and the nation’s large number of impoverished blacks are carrying a double burden of race and class, stuck at the twin and interrelated bottoms of the nation’s steep socioeconomic and racial pyramids.

"Their experience surely attests to the fact that, as King told the SCLC, 'something is wrong with capitalism', an economic system that (he explained in 1966 and 1967) 'produces beggars' alongside luxuriant opulence for the privileged few, thereby recommending, King felt, 'the restructuring of the entire society' and 'the radical redistribution of economic and political power.' It attests also to the fact that, as King explained, 'a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them.' It confirms King’s insistence that we 'question the whole society,' (emphasis added) seeing 'that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. They are the triple evils that are interrelated'.

"One could write a relevant monograph detailing the hidden and ongoing legacy and price of class oppression in and around notoriously business-dominated capitalist Chicago. I personally see little hope for efforts to address racial inequality and oppression that do not ultimately also confront class inequality and oppression, reflecting basic agreement with King’s conclusion, expressed to a white SCLC staffer in a jail cell in Selma, Alabama, in February 1965: 'if we are going to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism'.

"Still, reasons for hope are evident in the pages that follow. I am convinced that black experience within and beyond the city reflects the inexorable operation of objectively white-supremacist social and historical forces that possess their 'relatively autonomous' race logic within and beyond the supposedly 'color-blind' logics of capital and class hierarchy. I question (my own analytical tradition of) Marxism’s tendency to treat race as a superficial, merely 'superstructural' add-on to deeper, more relevant class-based structures and modes of exploitation. Without denying the critical relevance of class structures and corporate-capitalist political economy, I am unimpressed with the extent to which the operative social forces driving black subordination within and beyond Chicago have become 'color-blind.' I am struck by the significant extent to which racially oppressive white-supremacist forces and structures contain lives of their own. Those structures and forces, I am convinced, shape American capitalism and richly inform the nation’s profoundly uneven patterns of metropolitan development. And they would pose significant problems for any post-capitalist society born of (say) a revolution whose adherents chose to suppress 'race' issues relative to thoroughly legitimate class justice imperatives."

Unseen City of Poverty and Despair

"The book’s title is not meant to suggest that blacks are the only relevant victims of racial oppression in past or (especially) contemporary Chicago, which has become increasingly Asian and (above all) Latino during the last four decades. In a period when massive waves of Asian and Latin American new immigrants have 'rrevocably altered the dynamic of race relations in cities' Chicago’s patterns of racial segmentation and disparity are obviously quite a bit less simply 'lack and white'than they were in King’s day and before.

"Nor is the title meant to deny that whites are critical and centrally involved in the construction of racial oppression within and beyond Chicago, As Marx once said about capital, race is 'a social relationship,' one that is based on the living historical development of unequal power and recurrent conflict. Whites play an active, indeed leading and dominant, role in the construction of that relationship.

"Still, restrictions of time, space, and (frankly) background and expertise have led to me to say relatively little about the Asian and Latino experience with white supremacy in Chicago. At the same time, I hope this book will provide evidence for my judgment that the most truly oppressed victims of structural inequality in racist/capitalist Chicago continue to be disproportionately black. Blacks remain far and away the most truly segregated 'minority' in and around the city as across the nation—a fact that carries enormous significance for the socioeconomic status and life chances of black Chicagoans. I agree, moreover, with Chicago sociologist Michael Maly that 'black-white conflict remains the deep-seated and unresolved core of group relations in the U.S.', despite the blurring of old racial lines by the latest 'new immigration.'

"The title’s use of the word 'black' is meant to insinuate two further and related connotations. The first intended subtext is the city, region, and nation’s darkly disturbing failure to meaningfully apply its proclaimed integrationist and egalitarian ideals to people living in forgotten communities like the Chicago South Side neighborhood of Riverdale, a 97 percent black community area where in 1999 a third of the adults were unemployed and more than half of the children lived at less than half of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Things have certainly worsened there in subsequent years. There are many Riverdales across urban America. Indeed, the community is just one—hardly the most statistically significant—of many examples of highly concentrated and racialized poverty in Chicago and in the city’s south-suburban ring. Such communities are living testament to the persistent presence of King’s 'triple evils' and to what he called the 'perverted priorities' of a nation that spends billions on imperial militarism while millions of disproportionately nonwhite poor struggle just to keep their heads above water in the imperial 'homeland,' the self-described home and headquarters of world 'freedom.'

"The second intended collateral meaning attached to the use of the word 'black' in the title is 'invisible' or, perhaps better, 'unseen.' I am using one particularly relevant urban region to relate and analyze a problem that many of us no long care to acknowledge: communities mired in desperate poverty in dark shadows between the shiny condominium, office, and entertainment complexes of booming, glorious 'global' downtowns and the glittering suburban 'edge cities' on the ever-expanding periphery of the 'global metropolis.'

"To get a more immediately tangible sense of what I mean, travel one summer to catch an unconventionally obstructed view of the spectacular Chicago Air and Water show from one of the eight city neighborhoods that were both 90 percent or more black and home to a child poverty rate of at least 55 percent in 1999. Step out of your car and look at the blight and pain around you. If you peer carefully at the sky, looking especially to the north or east (the city’s poorest and blackest neighborhoods are located in vast hypersegregated stretches on the South and West sides), above and beyond the vacant lots, boarded-up businesses, dilapidated homes, and (perhaps) the angry and defeated people around you, you may spy a super-expensive fighter jet or bomber soaring above the city’s prosperous and predominantly white New North lakefront. There nearly a million mostly (though not at all exclusively) Caucasian city and metropolitan-area residents will be perched along majestic Lake Michigan on the city’s shining Gold Coast. They will be there to feel some 'shock and awe' at the humbling splendor of the spectacular Arab-killing F-16 and B-2 Stealth Bomber—the latter produced by 'Global Chicago’s' own Boeing Corporation. The breathtaking roar of these dazzling war machines may astound you, perhaps especially from a distance, as it contrasts poignantly with the more local noises, like the passing of a distant L-train or the sound of a battered vehicle as it rolls over a broken bottle in a poorly maintained street.

"Reflect that each of these and other displayed weapons of mass destruction will have cost more than enough many times over to feed, clothe, house, and educate all the children in the desolate community where you are briefly, possibly uneasily, stationed. Reflect also that most of the people taking in the show on the lakefront know nothing or next to it about what life is like in that hidden, mysterious, and officially demonized community, whose outskirts many air show attendees will briefly pass in air-conditioned cars on the way back to air-conditioned homes in predominantly white and relatively affluent communities on the suburban periphery. Like the people in Chicago’s Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, most of them live on the right and disproportionately white sides of what King called 'the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair.' Many, if not most, of them have been taught and conditioned to hate and fear the ghetto; to ignore the circumstances that create and sustain the impoverished, black inner city; and, worst of all, to blame the modern black metropolis’ inhabitants for their own precarious position at the bottom of the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of race, place, power, and class."

"What is Racism? Reflections From Global Chicago"
by Paul Street

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