Given the events since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, I reviewed a set of ideas that were in my files. I had summarized my thinking with hopes to develop the analysis I had outlined. I can’t find a date for these notes, but I most likely made them in the mid-1980s. At that time, I had focused a lot on urban policy. In my edited notes below, I am suggesting that violence and protest are as American as apple pie, and another American tradition is that violence breeds counter-violence and protest. Where we stand after the protest is as crucial as the protest, particularly in terms of income and wealth.
State-sanctioned violence against blacks has come in several forms: slavery, white terrorist groups during and after Reconstruction, police brutality, high rates of incarceration of blacks, high unemployment, segregation. These were all forms of social control of black labor and black communities.
Enforcement was either through its actual participation in force or by its refusal to extend the full protection of the law to citizens who were black. State-enforce violence formed the backdrop for the black revolt in the 1960s. The urban rebellions of the 1960s were, in a significant way, both a response (i) to institutionalized racism and exploitation and (ii) a demand for change.
This response did not necessarily come as the result of individual intellectual recognition of these forces but rather as a collective sense of “historical fatigue” as so graphically illustrated by Rosa Parks when she refused to give her seat on the bus, “I was tired.”
In my notes from the mid-1980s, I had identified three key “counter-violence-protest” actions.
One was the isolation of black leadership and the disruption of black organizing.
An ugly and violent institutional response was the systematic destruction of black leadership, particularly males, that preceded and followed the uprisings – King shot; Malcolm X, murdered; and The Black Panthers, destroyed.
Dissension was spread among black groups by federal agencies, effectively neutralizing alternative forms of black organizing and the formation of multi-racial and multi-ethnic coalitions.
The incarceration of record numbers of black males since the late 1960s has been high. The combination of these destructive actions, the promotion of an expanded black middle class, and the migration of the black middle class from the city to the suburbs left a leadership void in many black urban communities.
Two was the destabilization and isolation of black communities.
The destabilization and isolation of black communities took a new form after the rebellions. The constant uprooting of black communities as a matter of social policy is something with which blacks have always had to contend.
In the case of the District since the early 190o’s, blacks have watched as their communities being always under attack from such forces as the construction of federal offices and facilities, the building of highway systems, the destruction of first alley dwellings and, later, whole communities as a result of urban renewal. “Urban Renewal” became known as “Negro Removal.”
From the early 1900s to the mid-1950s, constant uprooting in the face of segregated housing policies forced blacks into overcrowded housing conditions. After that, while housing became available, it was often sub-standard as formerly well-kept housing units became slums because owners did not reinvest in their structures.
After the rebellions, according to one body of theory, national and local public policy regarding housing was designed for the “spatial de-concentration” of blacks.
Housing policies, along with private urban renewal (“gentrification”), have kept black communities in flux since the mid-1970s.
Three was the development of black underdevelopment.
Since the rebellions, on the one hand, there has been an expansion of the black middle class. At the same time, however, there has been a growth of a black underclass. In the words of the black sociologist Harold Cruse, what we gained after the struggle was “non-economic liberalism.” We gained politically, but not economically. The economic inequality that existed before the protests was more pronounced after it. Imagine that! Current statistics illustrate that from a wealth perspective, blacks are about to disappear. For example, in 2016 the median household wealth for whites was $171,000; for blacks, $17,600.
Let’s Make Sure This Time It’s Different
Complete a comprehensive understanding of the processes of urban disinvestment and reinvestment. If economic outcomes are not equitable, DC, or any other city, will not realize its “magnificent intentions.”
Change how the effects of the shifts in technology, job structure, and demography get manifested. If “work” disappears due to technological changes, we’ll have to figure out income-producing activities for all workers, not just black ones.
Make black economic empowerment commensurate black political power. No more non-economic liberalism.