"Needed: A Class Analysis,"by Eric Mann July/August 1993 issue of Poverty & Race
David Rusk's article offers significant empirical data on the class exploitation and racism that characterize the political economy of U.S. cities. It confirms and elaborates on what most activists and scholars working on inner-city problems already understand-that the anticipated great leap forward in the civil rights movement, when Black mayors re-elected in major urban centers, proved illusory. They often took over a hollow shell, as federal policy had already abandoned the inner cities. The important, if transitory, efforts of the War on Poverty were our society's first and last effort since Reconstruction to take responsibility for the economic underpinnings of race-based poverty. Since then, from the Democratic mayors' scuttling of the Community Action Program, to the Nixonite Model Cities, to the Reagan-Bush racism as national policy, to the Clinton courtship of the suburban white "Reagan Democrat," U.S. cities have become, as Professor Cynthia Hamilton analogizes, America's Bantustans.
In this context, Rusk's work-by highlighting the economically, fiscally, and racially gerrymandered construction of cities-is a valuable contribution. This points to an important arena of political struggle: challenging America's suburban middle class and the nation's racist urban policy. In some ways, I wish Rusk had stopped there, because while his analysis of the consequences of urban policy reflects an awareness of class and race,
his analysis of the political dynamics of why the problem exists reflects an inadequate comprehension of class and race exploitation.
*Rusk's assertion that when cities become more than 30% people of color they go beyond "the point of no return" has a blame-the-victim bias that confuses racist policies with "empirical" observation. In Los Angeles County, for example, where I live, there are nearly 9 million people: 3.4 million whites, 3.1 million Latinos, 1.1 million African Americans, and 1.1 million Asian Americans. With regard to the fiscal crisis of cities, it has been corporate-initiated class and race warfare initiatives such as Proposition 13 (linking corporate real estate tax reduction to the middle class; addressing a real problem of too high property taxes in some cases, but doing so in a way that gutted public services and placed greater pressure on renters and the homeless) that contribute to the decline of urban life-not the fact that L.A., is more than 60% people of color.
What is true in what Rusk is saying but not addressing, is that when people of color become a near majority of the population in any city, the vast majority of whites react not just with "white flight" but also with an increasingly suburban and segregated view of "the city," even when they live within city limits. An example is Los Angeles' recent mayoral election in which Richard Riordan, running a Ross Perot-like "make the city safe for business and the middle class with more tax breaks and more police" campaign was elected because the white minority voted at far higher percentages than people of color and voted overwhelmingly for Riordan.
*There is need for a long-term anti-racist movement that is not a separate movement in itself, but is a component of every aspect of progressive organizing -on the environment, labor union reform, women's rights, and every facet of urban poverty. This work has to assume a far more explicit ideological and pedagogical nature. We cannot simply seek "common interest" between people of color and whites and between low-income and more affluent people, as if racism and class bias will go away if we just manipulate demands better. We must consciously address the racism and anti-immigrant and anti-poor people bias that has become institutionalized in public discourse. The middle class of all races has to be challenged for its new worship of materialism and its self-righteous, bloated, and self-aggrandizing culture.
During the 1960s, the civil rights and then Black liberation movements and women's movement based a great deal of their moral authority on an ethical challenge to the racism and male supremacy of U.S. society and the specific ways that white people and men were often part of the problem instead of part of the solution. While we can all talk about how some of those struggles could have been handled more constructively, the overwhelming historical sum-up of that process is positive, for it proceeded not just with a liberated view of Black people, other people of color, and women, but with a strategic and optimistic view that ethical and political struggle could actually make changes in the behavior of white people and men.
Today, there is a need to dramatically reintroduce issues of ethics and personal transformation into a left politics of the city, otherwise racism and short-term self-interest will continue to poison any bold programs for change.
Rusk highlights how the cities essentially subsidize the suburbs and recommends new urban reorganizations based on calling for "the angels of our better nature. "But without a class analysis that explains the essential role that cities play as centers of low-wage labor, working people who subsidize the wealth of the middle and upper classes, and an explicit analysis of how the corporate class has effectively enlisted the middle class to support corporate priorities and abandon the low-wage working class and poor, and a without a conscious organizing strategy to confront white racism and middle-class reaction, his analysis will only explain why the problem is so persistent, not present any options for change.
Any strategy for urban transformation must begin with a sober assessment of how racism and poverty serve the interests of many people in U.S. society, and go beyond calls to Abraham Lincoln and angels to demand the radical redistribution of wealth and radical constraints on corporate behavior.
Eric Mann has served as organizer with CORE, the Newark Community Union Project, SDS and United Auto Workers Local 645 in Los Angeles. He is presently the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center and a member of the Planning Committee of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union. firstname.lastname@example.org
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