Urban Race Relations
Urban Race Relations
Fetters at Home, Dangers Abroad
I'll always remember the day I tried to engage in that silly exercise called "speaking truth to power." It was early December of 2001. My topic was American policymakers' decision to place nearly a million black people behind bars and to mark more than 1 in three black males with a felony record. As a member of a Chicago-based council of advisers working to help ex-offenders "reintegrate" into the "free world," I was invited to a pleasant conference room to give my thoughts on these matters to Matt Bettenhausen,
Bettenhausen, who hails from a local family of accomplished racecar drivers, arrived in time only for the last talk. He apologized for his lateness, explaining that he had been meeting with the state's Attorney General to discuss the "War On Terrorism." His eyes beamed with pride as he told us that he had become much busier since his appointment as the state's "first-ever Homeland Security Coordinator." With an American flag pin prominently displayed on his lapel, he regaled us with the latest reports on the
After thus communicating the relative insignificance of our issue at this moment of sweeping global consequence, Bettenshausen told us that then
Tires squealing, he apologized for racing off to another meeting related to "the war on terror." I was instantly reminded of James Madison's comment that "the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad." Another phrase also came to mind: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
According to a great national myth propagated by the in-power right wing War Party and its allies and enablers in the dominant state-corporate media, "everything changed" on
Thanks to 9/11, we have lost our innocence and awakened to our national magnificence and the related threats we face from bad people who hate and envy our freedom and prosperity. United We Stand: we have transcended old divisions in shared allegiance to the "war on terrorism" - a new crusade against a new semi-permanent Evil Other that is the true replacement for Cold War predecessors in
Racially Disparate Residential Neo-liberalism
How curious, then, to pick up the "Metro" section of a recent (August 6th) issue of my leading local newspaper - The Chicago Tribune. The front page contains a photograph of fifteen well-dressed white people relaxing in a plush and very predominantly Caucasian North Side neighborhood (
It's a perfect image of bourgeois calm and oblivious, self-satisfied, imperial repose. The photograph, the Tribune reports, will be used for a "recruitment poster" by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which does not seem terribly interested in attracting student's from the city and metropolitan area's large African-American population.
Things are a bit more stressful in another, blacker part of town. Further down on the same page of the same section, we can read the results of a recent research report on 1,587 African-Americans living in the decrepit Ida B. Wells housing project on the city's South Side. More than half of the households there have incomes less than $5,000. Less than a fourth of the heads of those households are employed. According to the Urban Institute, 1,000 people living at Wells may end up homeless as a result of the city's imminent demolition of the project. There's an endemic shortage, the Institute notes, of affordable housing for the project's residents and indeed for poor people throughout the city. Only a small number of the displaced will qualify to live in the "mixed income" dwellings the city will build where the facility used to sit. This is terrible, but it's an old story. Since the early- and mid-90s, public authorities have been demolishing public housing projects with only minimal attention to the needs and limited resources of very predominantly black public housing residents. The
As researchers and activists pointed out long before the jetliner attacks "changed everything," the available stock of such housing in
Another story on the exact same Tribune page also indicates that some situations remain normal in the post-September era. It notes that seven inmates, mostly black, were recently beaten with pool cues by guards at the city's giant Cook County Jail. How pre-9/11: this is the third such high-profile incident reported in the last four years at
Last July, the
After both crashes, nobody in the local media or politics had much to say much about the relationship between the victims' race and the nature of the van's destination. There were no connections made between the tragedy and the state's policy decision to dramatically increase the number of prisoners in Illinois - mostly black and from the Chicago area - from 27,000 in 1990 to nearly 47,000 in 2000 (even as crime fell) and its related building of 11 new mass correctional facilities in Illinois during the same period massive job-programs for de-industrialized downstate whites that are placed at increasingly vast distances from the "offenders'" home communities (See Paul Street, The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation [Chicago: Chicago Urban League, October 2002], available online at www.cul-chicago.org).
Last Hired, First Fired
Speaking of jobs, an excellent recent front-page article in the Tribune notes that mass lay-offs enacted during the curiously "jobless" Bush "recovery" have hit
To more directly sense the rich continuities of racial homeland inequality in
Equally evident is the relative of absence of retail facilities, services, and institutions that are standard in richer, whiter neighborhoods: full-service modern grocery stores, drugstores, bookstores, restaurants, doctors, dentists, lawyers, dry-cleaners, banks, personal investment and family insurance stores, boutiques, coffee shops, and much more. Business and homes are visibly dilapidated, with many of the former relying on hand-painted signs to advertise their wares. Local business owners, many of whom are Arab, protect their enterprises from burglary with bars and gated shutters. Pawnshops and barebones storefront churches are widely visible, as are liquor stores and currency exchanges advertising super-exploitive Payday loans. Taxicabs are scarce and those that do serve the neighborhoods are generally low-budget, fly-by-night "jitney" firms.
The small number of whites seen in these neighborhoods and their South Side counterparts are males working in traditional working-class "jobs that pay" - street and sewer repair, construction trades, firemen, and the like - that appear to be unavailable to black males.
Police cars cruise warily, their occupants donning bullet-proof vests deemed necessary in waging the war on drugs in neighborhoods where people with felony records outnumber legitimate jobs.
This is pretty much how these neighborhoods looked and felt before 9/11. Truth be told, they look a lot like they did in the 1960s, even before the riots that are supposed to have taken away their vitality, actually stolen by a process of disinvestment that was already well underway.
How have things changed since 9/11 in these neighborhoods? Simply put, the core continuities of human suffering and hopelessness have been accelerated. Things have gotten worse at a quickened pace, thanks in large part to the racially disparate joblessness of the current recovery. Also part of the unpleasant equation is 9/11 itself, or more accurately the official, right-led public and media response to the terror attacks. September 11th gave the radical-right Bush junta - falsely labeled conservative - a precious opportunity to divert public attention away from the causes and consequences of urban inequality, to starve, cripple, and pre-empt programs that might alleviate the suffering caused by racism and related socioeconomic inequality, and to conflate dissent with treason. These masters of war at home and abroad have seized on the opportunity with all deliberate speed, consistent with the timeworn conduct of concentrated power, before and since "everything changed." Empire abroad has always been and remains both reflection and agent of inequality and repression at home.