Urban Crisis and Black Politics

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

James Jennings

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
“– Harlem,” Langston Hughes

THE “URBAN CRISIS” is a shorthand way of combining a number of interconnected factors. The problems facing cities today are multifaceted, impacted by the play of race, class, gender, technology, history and the growing internationalization of the economy. In attempting to offer a comprehensive overview and analysis of the forces that shape the city, it may prove possible to go beyond the choices of letting the raisin fester or explode. What are the components to the urban crisis?

* The increasing and intensifying poverty, especially among children and young people, as well as communities of color;

* The government’s incapacity to balance local budgets that have been strained by overreliance on taxing the working class while subsidizing the rich and corporate sectors;

* The maintenance of government bureaucracies that have become politically entrenched, inefficient and unaccountable to neighborhoods;

* The subsidization of the military, which has produced a “Pentagon drain” on U.S. cities;(1)

* The continual redlining of communities, which results in diminishing the stock of affordable and livable housing and weakening the business infrastructure of neighborhoods;(2)

* The increasing reality of crime and drugs — both legal and illegal;

* The inadequacy of health services, which is reflected in high rates of infant mortality in Black and Latino communities as well as in long waiting lists of drug treatment programs and a lack of health care coverage for millions;

* The increasing rates of family homelessness,(3) created through the inadequate stock of decent, affordable housing;

* The continual loss of jobs accompanied by declining real wages for workers and their families;

* The public schools in poor and working-class neighborhoods operate more like prisons than places of education and training for future jobs;

* The continual corporate flight from the cities to other areas.

Of course, the problems associated with the urban crisis are not confined to a few big cities, or to the Black or Latino population exclusively. In fact, the crisis is spreading rapidly to the suburbs. Jack Beatty recently wrote an article for The Atlantic that proposes the white-collar, middle-class population may be suffering more from the crisis than working class, or blue-collar, sectors.

Urban Crisis Not New for Blacks

Despite the intensity of the current crisis, especially as it is unfolding in Black, Latino and Asian communities, it is historically inaccurate to suggest that this is a completely new development.

I take issue with the recent wave of historical revision suggesting that in earlier periods Blacks did not face dismal social and economic conditions in the urban areas. Both liberal and conservative writers — sociologist William J. Wilson and economist Thomas Sowell for instance — have implied or stated that urban community life for Black people in the 1940s and 1950s was more “halcyonic,” that is, Blacks in the ghetto could sit on their stoops on hot summer nights and feel safe. According to Sowell and his conservative colleagues, numerous Black businesses thrived during segregation and the absence of civil rights activism.

While I agree that the social and economic conditions are still getting worse for Blacks, I do not believe there was ever a “Golden Age” of city life in this nation for the masses of Black urban dwellers.

The problems of poverty, public safety, police brutality and white mob violence, inadequate housing, limited residential mobility and segregation and poor, and limited schooling in earlier periods cannot be romanticized. One can read W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Philadelphia Negro” published at the turn of the century, Alan Spear’s “Black Chicago,” Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of A Negro Ghetto,” Harold X. Connally’s A Ghetto Grows in Brooklyn and many other historical works to note that racial and class hierarchy have been persistent features of the city for Black people. Arguing that there was a Golden Age of Black city life is like arguing that slavery was beneficial to Blacks because at least Blacks enjoyed full employment.

The Nature of Today’s Urban Crisis

While the urban crisis is not new, especially for Blacks, it is still different today than it has been for more than fifty years. There are several broad demographic and economic developments that have altered urban life. These have made archaic the typical kind of social welfare and urban policy strategies emerging from the national government since the New Deal.

The foremost development altering the context of today’s urban crisis is that the U.S. economy is no longer able to expand as it once did. In 1981 the United States was a creditor nation, holding $141 billion in net overseas development; by 1988, however, the United States had become a debtor nation, owing an international debt of $522 billion. In The Politics of Rich and Poor, Kevin Phillips points out that in 1985 the United States held 21.7% of all the world’s bank assets, by 1987 it had declined to 14.8%.

Currently the U.S. economy reflects greater class cleavage, increasing poverty, growing numbers of the persistently unemployed and unnecessary workers as well as declining real wages and family income. The new jobs that are periodically created, furthermore, cannot make significant dents in resolving these problems because they tend to be part-time, low-paying and temporary. Of all the new jobs created in the first six months of the Clinton administration, fully 60% were part-time.

Within this context, the role and policies of the federal government has been a major factor in maintaining and intensifying the urban crisis. Federal cutbacks over the past twenty years have drastically undermined the capacity of cities to resolve issues related to poverty, economic dislocation and racial division. During the start of the 1980s federal aid as a percentage of city budgets stood at 17.7%; ten years later the figure had been reduced to 6.5%. Thus federal cutbacks have directly contributed to a deterioration of the city’s housing stock, employment levels, public safety and health indicators.

The federal government exacerbated the urban crisis by declaring war on poor people rather than on poverty. Between 1977-1987 per-capita federal anti-poverty expenditures declined by 22%, from $4,744 per person to $3,675. While in 1970 AFDC benefits represented 66% of the official poverty level, by 1980 it represented 49.4% and by 1991, AFDC benefits crumbled to only 43.1%. Poor women and children on AFDC have experienced major slashes in funding, which, by the way, represents less than 1% of the current U.S. national budget of $1.5 trillion.

Mayors and local legislators, including Black mayors, have also contributed to the urban crisis by pursuing bankrupt strategies and policies based on corporate giveaways and tax breaks to the rich, in the hope that this would result in benefits trickling down to the city fiscal coffers from businesses locating in their cities. There are now numerous examples of corporations turning their backs on a city, even after receiving generous tax abatements and other fiscal benefits:

* In the 1980s Gulf Oil received $1 billion in tax exemptions from the city of Philadelphia. This was one factor that lead to the city’s fall into bankruptcy a few years later.

* In 1990 the total value of real estate tax abatement granted in New York City was $1.3 billion. The majority of the money — $900 million — was used to develop luxury housing units that effectively displaced low- and moderate-income housing units.

* Under the Dinkins administration alone, New York City’s Industrial and Commercial Incentive program provided $108 million in tax abatements to Con Edison, Japan Airlines, the Koh Woh Bank of China, McDonalds and White Castle, yet the companies have not responded by creating more manufacturing jobs.

All these factors have contributed to the worsening of living conditions in urban America.

Race & Class in the Crisis

I believe that the urban crisis today is fundamentally a class crisis in the sense that economic dislocation and social malaise impact most negatively on poor and working-class communities. I also believe, as C.L.R. James and W.E.B. DuBois argued more than fifty years ago, that it is historically and theoretically inaccurate to minimize the racial crisis relative to the class crisis. Race and class are intricately intertwined in the past, present and future of U.S. politics. It is ahistorical — and illogical — to analyze the urban crisis except within the “prism of race and class” to use Manning Marable’s terminology.

Racial hierarchy — that is, an historically and socially entrenched racial caste order — continues to be a fundamental feature of cities. This hierarchy is reflected in the continuing racial gap between Blacks and whites in income, employment, housing, poverty, prison, and health status. As but one example of this continuing racial hierarchy, note that in 1939 the proportion of Blacks in poverty was at least three times the proportion of whites, and in 1959 and 1989 that proportion still held true. Despite significant political changes in U.S. race relations — including the elimination of a multi-generational system of legally and socially sanctioned apartheid — society is still characterized by persistent social and economic divisions along racial lines.

The assertion of racial hierarchy is not to minimize the significant racial progress that has taken place, but merely to pinpoint the continuing racial chasm. In fact according to many national reports, this racial gap is widening.

An entrenched racial gap has been evident since the 1930s. It has not been significantly altered by changing national administrations, civil rights legislation, changing family structure within the Black community or even increased levels of schooling on the part of Blacks. While these kinds of factors have produced some social and economic differentiation within the Black community, the wide gap between Black and white income, employment or the quality of life has not closed.

In addition to this continuing existence of racial hierarchy, class division is a fundamental feature of the urban crisis. Class divisions are based on the ownership, accumulation, management and distribution of wealth. The crisis has been made worse as the result of public policies that favor the interest of the wealthy sectors without requiring reciprocity for the well being of the city as a whole.

Urban policies reflecting class bias in favor of the corporate sectors is not necessarily confined to conservatives. The Reagan and Bush “supply-side” and military policies of the 1980s represented but an extreme version of class bias that is also reflected in Democratic Party/liberal national administrations. As Kenneth M. Dolbeare pointed out in his book The Crisis of Democracy, Reaganism represented by the “cowboy” version of traditional “yankee capitalism” pursued by Democratic Party administrations.

The Role & Strategies of Demo-Republicans

While recently the Democratic Party certainly has been more reformist than the Republican Party in some important areas, its policies and strategies are still defined by the interests and economic foundation of the corporate sectors. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to respond effectively to the needs of the cities.

It is clear to me that the last two Republican national administrations, in particular, have contributed to worsening the social crisis by a massive redistribution of wealth in favor of the rich and the military-industrial complex and by reducing social programs benefitting low income and working-class people. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the present Democratic administration is pursuing a similar strategic framework. Even the conservative columnist George Will described Clinton’s initial social welfare and urban proposals as “year five of the Bush-Clinton era.”

In a recent issue of Poverty and Race, Sean Gervasi claims that:

“…it should now be clear that barring a basic change in the policy, the new Administration…is not going to address the major problems of America’s cities, home for 59% of our African-American population and 52% of our Hispanic population…while President Clinton has repeatedly stated that he intends to take the country in a ‘new direction’ his recently announced plan represents little more than a minor correction in the course set by Presidents Reagan and Bush.”

To use Dolbeare’s terminology again, Clinton’s approach to urban economic development may be but the gentler side of the “cowboy” or “Reagan capitalism” that Americans experienced during the Reagan and Bush years. In the area of public assistance and welfare, the Clinton administration seems to be re-emphasizing rather than questioning the assumptions about poor people. Clinton’s association with draconian welfare reform proposals (by the way first enunciated during Barry Goldwater’s campaign for presidency in 1964) will not resolve the problem. Ending “welfare as we know it” by fingerprinting AFDC recipients, forcing people to work minimum wage or “community service” jobs, taxing food stamps, or cutting off benefits to women who become pregnant while on welfare are mean-spirited.

These kind of “reforms” — aimed at the mythical problem of dependency rather than at urban poverty — will only deepen the problem. The task is not to abolish welfare “as we know it” through forcing people off the rolls but to eliminate poverty through full employment, raising the real wage and redistributing social and fiscal wealth so that poor and working-class people benefit, as well as the tenuous middle-class sector.

Both Republicans and Democrats have also advocated empowerment or enterprise zones as a quick-fix response to the problems cities face. Trying to resolve the problems of the cities by providing $2-3 billion here or there may be meaningless in the long run. And as Peter Dreier contends, enterprise zones merely heat up the bidding wars between cities for limited resources.

What Strategies?

Despite my political pessimism regarding the willingness of either major party to develop effective responses to the urban crisis, I do believe that conditions can be vastly improved. What would such a package of public policies look like? They would have to contain:

* Investing in social and human services directed at maintaining decent living standards at the neighborhood level;

* Developing a region-wide urban framework that would discourage bidding wars between cities for corporate investment;

* Developing and maintaining the sustained involvement of the national government in discouraging corporate waste and inefficiency;

* Creatively utilizing tax benefits to extract specific and concrete benefits from the private sector in helping to revitalize the cities economically;

* Adapting linkage policies, encouraging “downtown developers” to share in the increased costs of development in the form of housing assistance, and expanded day care or job training;

* Stronger plant closing legislation;

* Passing and implementing a policy of progressive taxation;

* Encouraging foundations, universities and hospitals to become more aggressive in reflecting social responsibility for the well- being of cities and its peoples instead of allowing these institutions to rake in billions of untaxed dollars and determining on their own what will be a fair return to the community;

* Adopting a national full employment policy and jobs programs including a mass public works program in order to rebuild the nation’s deteriorating physical infrastructure.

Funding for full employment can come from the almost $1 trillion of financial assets accumulated in public pension funds, from military reductions specifically utilized to generate employment and from a progressive income tax. Such strategies will strengthen the U.S. economy, begin to resolve the impact of the urban crisis and begin to reduce racial and ethnic division in the cities.

Needing A New Party

These policy suggestions are difficult to obtain because their adoption threatens to curb corporate power. It suggests that what’s good for the social and economic health of the country should be prioritized over the pursuit of corporate wealth and power. Clearly there has to be a political engine that continually pushes an urban agenda. The recent Los Angeles rebellion illustrates that national administrations, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats have not — and will not — pursue public policies that might endanger the economic status quo.

It should also be clear that despite the rhetoric of “empowerment,” the urban strategies coming out of Washington will not facilitate building political and community power in the hands of poor and working people.

Until poor people, particularly in communities of color, develop the political power to help determine the adoption, implementation and evaluation of public policy that impacts on the use of land, the availability of housing and employment opportunities, the availability of health facilities and quality education for all, the situation will always be that the needs of this sector will be ignored — until the next riot comes along.

In the absence of grassroots political power, this deprioritization of the urban crises is inevitable. A review of the events in Los Angeles after the rebellion reveals the story: by June-July 1992 business and political leaders in Los Angeles pledged, promised or claimed that something like $380 million would be available to “rebuild” the city. Nationally politicians cited the availability of funding ranging between $1-2 billion.

What has happened to these promises? According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Los Angeles has seen only $22 million in actual dollars. The remainder of the pledges is not forthcoming. This failure on the part of politicians reflects the lack of grassroots mobilization. One reason underlying this inability was the failure to organize and unify the Black, Latino, and Asian communities on the basis of a common program that could pull those communities together.

So we come back to the need for a political engine that could support a progressive urban agenda and unify the various working-class communities and communities of color. Stating the program leads me to conclude that there is a need for a third party that can both challenge the two political parties and help inspire and unify a grassroots movement.

I would propose that a third party operate at both local and national levels, not simply working to elect a Black, Latino or Asian face, but more importantly forcing the adoption of urban policies that would prioritize people over super profits for corporations or super bailouts for the massive business failures and continuing massive inefficiencies of big corporations or government.

I also believe that Black activists have a special responsibility to consider, and push, the idea of a third party. The role of Black leadership is crucial in developing effective strategies. I argue that this is true due to the numbers and concentration of Blacks in the urban areas as well as the historical role a Black leadership has played in America’s social movements. James Boggs’ metaphor is still relevant: Blacks are on the bottom of the social ladder; if Blacks begin to move and shake the bottom step, the entire ladder is in danger of falling.

I also argue the necessity of Black leadership in the development of a third party because the Black community and its leadership will play an important role — positively or negatively — in developing and defining political relationships with other communities of color. Some Black leaders have made very little attempt to reach out to other communities of color, instead choosing to play the traditional and divisive American political game of “ethnic leapfrogging.” Yet this game cannot possibly provide successful resolution to the urban crisis today.

Too many Black leaders (elected, appointed or anointed) have opted for access to power, rather than challenging or seeking to hold actual power. Too many have opted merely for a “piece of the pie” rather than building the institutional and community-based capacity to question the baker, and determine how the pie will be sliced. So today most of the Black leadership passively acquiesces to the calculated marginalization of the Black electorate by the Democratic Party.

Black politics — but also Latino politics, Asian-American politics, labor politics, feminist politics — must move from operating within a conceptual framework that emphasizes the pursuit of access or a politics of the lesser evil to a people-oriented, grassroots politics that envisions a socially healthy and economically just society. At this point in time, only an independent, third party force on both the local and national landscape, based primarily in the mobilization of communities of color, can push for a progressive social agenda, can become a positive, political engine gathering the momentum to make this transformation possible.


  1. In 1990 Los Angeles county taxpayers sent $4.7 billion in to the nation’s military budget but received only $3.27 billion in benefits, producing a subsidy of $1.43 billion for the Pentagon.
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  2. In 1970 there were 1,068 supermarkets in Los Angeles country. By 1990 this number was reduced to 694. This reduction negatively impacted upon poor and working-class communities of color. It was due, in part, to redlining by banks and insurance companies.
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  3. In New York City, one out of eight Black children have experienced bouts of homelessness.
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ATC 54, January-February 1995