In early March of 2008 PolicyLink, a liberal “research and action” think tank dedicated to achieving “social and economic equity,” especially for “low-income communities and communities of color,” held their “Third National Summit on Equitable Development, Social Justice, and Smart Growth” in New Orleans, Louisiana.1 The gathering, which brought together some 2,000 participants drawn from community organizations, foundations, government, universities, and businesses, was taking place in the midst of the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-ordered bulldozing of some five-thousand little damaged, yet badly needed, public housing apartments. This plan had been vigorously contested by public housing residents and supporters through marches, civil disobedience, denunciations at public forums, proposed legislation, and court challenges in the months and years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in August of 2005. Yet, far from using the gathering as a pulpit to denounce the demolitions—which had been condemned only a month earlier by United Nation’s Human Rights rapporteurs who called for “immediately [halting] the demolition of public housing in New Orleans”—PolicyLink celebrated those carrying it out.2 On the occasion of the summit, the organization’s “founder and CEO,” Angela Glover Blackwell, honored Richard Baron, a developer and PolicyLink board member whose real estate company was overseeing the demolition and “redevelopment” of one of the targeted public housing developments.
After overcoming their incredulity, local housing activists called on PolicyLink to revoke their plans to honor Baron, whose resume also included playing a leading role in the creation of the federal government’s “HOPE VI” program that facilitated the demolition of tens of thousands of public housing apartments in the 1990s and 2000s. Despite CEO Glover’s claim that her organization “relies on the wisdom, voice, and experience of local residents and organizations,” she did not even deign to respond to local pleas to disinvite Baron.3 Calls to self-styled progressive public intellectuals Manuel Pastor (and future PolicyLink board member) and Peter Dreier, who were conference participants, to join a demonstration denouncing the affair were ignored in the case of the former and forthrightly rejected by the latter. Undeterred, local housing activists went ahead with a demonstration outside the Sheraton Hotel where the conference was being held to denounce the honoring of Baron. The protestors, through chants, speeches and pamphlets, highlighted the glaring contradiction of a gathering dedicated to “equitable development and social justice” that was simultaneously honoring Baron because of his role in overseeing the destruction of public housing in New Orleans and across the country.4 Policylink managed this contradiction by redefining social justice as the creation of “communities of opportunity,” rather than ones that guaranteed a right to housing and other basic needs, including the “right to stay put.” Thus, through this lens, “deconcentrating poverty” by refashioning public housing as “mixed income” developments that would include only a fraction of the previous public housing apartments, represented progress. Indeed, this definition of housing justice was underscored in the various panels and themes at the conference with titles such as “regional equity,” “changing geography of poverty and opportunity” and “deconcentrating poverty.”5
How could they arrive at such an assessment? How did destroying poor people’s homes, and dispersing the former residents, become part of “best practices” for progressive social policy?6 PolicyLink, it must be remembered, is not a conservative think tank along the lines of the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, or Manhattan Institute. Rather it is an exemplar for what passes as liberal thinking around American social policy. Glover Blackwell, and others from her milieu, support state intervention to address social ills; they advocate, to cite PolicyLink’s mission statement, the “use[of] local, state, and federal policy to create conditions that benefit everyone, especially people in low-income communities and communities of color.”7 In this paper I argue that understanding how demolishing and displacing public housing communities came to be defined as progressive requires an engagement with the work and life of renowned African American sociologist, and current PolicyLink board member, William Julius Wilson (WJW). The work of WJW has, by far, been the most influential in placing a progressive imprimatur on the dismantlement of public housing over the last three decades. But, to understand WJW’s work and fully appreciate why the invocation and mobilization of his name, claims, and authority was so important for the proponents of public housing dismantlement, we have to examine the Chicago School of Sociology (CSS) of the early 20th century and that of sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the middle of the last century. This discussion sets the stage for the second section of the paper that analyzes the demise of public housing in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans. I highlight how a variety of actors justified and normalized the dismantlement of public housing communities and displacement of thousands of low-income black families, and the role that Wilsonian and other ideas played in that effort.
The Roots of Wilsonian Thought: From the Chicago School of Sociology to Daniel Patrick Moynihan
The Chicago School of Sociology (CSS), forged by University of Chicago professors Robert Park and Ernest Burgess between the world wars, had an enormous influence in how the city, and race and urban poverty in particular, is understood and studied. The school arises in the aftermath of the late 19th and early 20th century mass influx of southern and eastern European immigrants, and in the midst of the first wave of the African American “Great Migration” from the South. These migrants flocked to work in the burgeoning industries of, in particular, the Northeast and Midwest, where many engaged in militant labor struggles and not a few were attracted to a variety of left wing ideologies and parties.
Within this political milieu, the CSS represented a politically liberal response to the growing wave of anti-immigrant nativism, anti-black violence, and the dominant theories of biological racism that pervaded the academy and public opinion. In contrast to white nativist fears of the unassimilable immigrant—including newly arrived black southern arrivals to the North—Robert Park and the CSS promoted a “melting pot” theory of assimilation, asserting that “every society, every nation, and every civilization has been a kind of melting pot and has thus contributed to the intermingling of races by which new traces and new cultures eventually emerge.”8 His melting pot theory aimed to assuage the fears fanned by nativists with confident assertions and predictions that “the intermingling of peoples was a universal process and that America’s ethnic discord would resolve itself over time.”9 On the Left, the theory aimed its fire at the radical labor movement, holding that labor militancy and embrace of socialism by the newly arrived immigrants would be abandoned as they became incorporated into the American mainstream.
The rise to prominence of the Chicago School brand of sociology marked a break from the early reformers associated with the emerging discipline and social science more broadly, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Jane Addams, Albion Small, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ida Wells-Barnett and others. While not calling for revolutionary change—at least in the early 20th century in the case of Du Bois—these scholars did, as Joe Feagin argues, employ innovative sociological research methods while, at the same time, undertaking studies with the unapologetically political aim of “significantly reducing or eliminating societal injustice…such as the oppression of women, black Americans, the poor, and immigrants.”10 The CSS leadership, in contrast, abandoned this activist sociology in the name of a “value free,” detached variety, a pretense that was advanced “by…endowing their theories of social processes in the logic and language of natural scientific law.”11 In practice this really meant that sociology and sociologists became “increasingly linked [to] the interests of certain corporate-capitalist elites, such as those represented by the Rockefeller foundation.”12 Under the pretense of an apolitical, scientific, detached, intellectual endeavor, the CSS received generous funding from elite foundations “as they worked to establish a more scientific relationship between knowledge and social policy, both in writing and in collaboration with social service and policy agencies.”13
The CSS’s “human ecology model of social development,” whose practitioners wrapped it in a scientistic gloss, was the larger theoretical school out of which emerged the “melting pot” theory of ethnic assimilation. Under the ecological cycle of human interaction, groups moved naturally through stages of contact/competition, conflict, accommodation and assimilation. Extended to the urban context, the theory held that cities were like environments found in nature. Thus, CSS’s urban theory ignored political economy—the role of real estate, banking, and the state—and instead attributed the configuration of the city to “naturalistic forces of economic competition, intergroup relations and residential secession.”14 Under this model, newly arrived urban immigrants first settle where land is the cheapest, “the zone of deterioration,” one of the five concentric rings of the city. The areas of most severe poverty and disorganization are encountered in this core, and then vectors of progressively more prosperous areas ensue. In the core the newly arrived immigrants undergo a process of “disorganization” in which they, due to rapid, disorienting, social change, “engage in antisocial behavior and seem unable to maintain a conventional family structure.”15 Although there was the threat that this state could become “pathological,” the normal trajectory, according to the theory, was toward “reorganization” where the immigrants become acclimated to their new society’s norms and began an upward trajectory economically. This assimilation process is expressed geographically in the move toward new more affluent “concentric zones” of the city.
The black migrants’ experience of pervasive, cross-class, segregation and discrimination contradicted the confident, reassuring claims of CSS’s urban ecology and ethnic assimilation models.16 A number of African American social scientists schooled or influenced by the CSS, such as Charles Johnson, St. Clair Drake, Horace Cayton, and E. Franklin Frazier, developed works that addressed the racial blindspots of the theory but in ways that did not radically break from its core assumptions. For example, the Chicago Commission on Race Relations’ report analyzing the city’s 1919 anti-black pogrom, which was largely written by Charles Johnson, and the influential study Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945) authored by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton Jr., both modified CSS’s assimilation model by recognizing that racially discriminatory state, employer, real estate, and banking policies, along with white racial attitudes, presented obstacles for African Americans following the same path as their southern and eastern European immigrant brethren. Thus, racism was identified by these writers as an artificial barrier to a properly functioning urban ecology and black advancement. E. Franklin Frazier’s work on the black family concurred with his colleagues’ by condemning “racism as an artificial barrier to the natural ecology of urban succession.”17 At the same time, and consistent with the other writers and central CSS precepts, Frazier identified endogenous factors, in the form of a black matriarchal family structure—which he saw as a rational adaptation to slavery and the desperate poverty faced by southern sharecroppers—as contributing to a lack of African American advancement. Matriarchy, as a rational response to racial and class oppression, turned pathological by promoting sexual practices and other behaviors and attitudes that contributed to delinquency, dependency, and crime. Nonetheless, Frazier and others were still optimistic—in contrast to what we will see under the deindustrializing city—that these pathological obstacles could be overcome as racial barriers began to fall and black (male) workers obtained opportunities in the expanding industrial economy.18
The critiques by these and other African American modifiers of CSS thought were exemplars of what political scientist Preston Smith calls the ideology of “racial democracy,” the dominant ideology of black policy elites. In the realm of housing, proponents of this ideology held that the major obstacle facing black Americans was gaining access to the same housing assistance and markets that white Americans enjoyed. In addition, reflecting the paternalistic, custodial role embraced and assumed by the black civic elite, part of the challenge for securing adequate housing for blacks, and assimilation into larger society more generally, was reforming the values and behaviors of the black poor and working class. This approach stands in contrast to what Smith terms “social democracy” ideology, which argued that all people had a right to housing and other basic needs regardless of ability to pay or whether they had sufficiently embraced middle class values. In contrast, the avatars of racial democracy accepted class stratification in housing (and in all other societal realms as well). The major policy goal for this layer, consistent with CSS thought, became breaking down the artificial barriers that prevented blacks from freely competing in all realms of the U.S.’s democratic capitalist system—from housing, to schools, to jobs. At the same time, from the perspective of this layer, some of the race were not deemed prepared to take advantage of new opportunities if they did arise since they had not shed their alleged pathological ghetto values and behaviors. This “double consciousness” with regard to the sources of racial inequality explains why the black civic elites placed such importance on reforming the poor, which is highlighted by their stance toward the public housing program emerging in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The black policy elites backed the program more for its promise to eradicate ghetto-producing pathologies, rather than as a commitment to housing as a right.19 Thus, due to the shaky ideological support for public housing, once it became stigmatized as allegedly facilitating dysfunction, future civic and academic elites, as we will see, abandoned their support.
Gunnar Myrdal’s influential study An American Dilemma (1944), which like the works emanating from the CSS was generously funded, in this case, by the Carnegie foundation, also pointed to racial discrimination and white racial attitudes as the chief barriers to assimilation. Myrdal, as did the works of the black social scientists influenced by the CSS, also incorporated the idea of a black underclass pathology playing a central role in maintaining blacks in poverty.20 These works played central roles in forging the post-war liberal orthodoxy on race. Arising in the wake of the U.S. triumph over Nazi Germany and the emerging post-war boom, liberal orthodoxy expressed an underlying confidence that an expanding U.S. capitalism could, through gradual, incremental change, overcome the lingering barriers to the full incorporation of African Americans into American life.21
In the post-war period black social scientists maintained their belief that the “American dilemma” was gradually being solved. In the 1961 edition of Black Metropolis, Drake and Cayton did acknowledge that the job ceiling and black ghetto continued. Nonetheless, they pointed to steady economic growth that led to rising black incomes, an expanded social welfare state that opened opportunities for education and home ownership, and some civil rights gains as auguring—as the liberal orthodoxy foretold—the eventual full incorporation of African Americans into social, political and economic life of the country. Yet, by the mid to late 1960s, in the face of the mass urban rebellions, many elite thinkers began to reevaluate their earlier rosy predictions. One of the most influential was the 1965 study issued by the then-Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson administration, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The study, officially known as the The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, but later better known simply as the Moynihan report, drew on the CSS indictment of the matriarchal family as being the source of poverty and a whole host of ills that existed in black ghetto communities. This “tangle of pathology,” not ongoing institutional racism (and certainly not capitalism), was the major obstacle for making progress toward racial equality.
In the words of psychologist William Ryan (1971), the claims of the Moynihan report were a classic case of “blaming the victim” in which responsibility for poverty was placed on the behaviors and culture of the poor, rather than economic and political structures and elites. Moynihan attempted to defend himself by arguing that he was simply drawing on the arguments made by black social scientists, such as Frazier, who had pointed to the same problem. But the report, which faced withering criticism in a period in which radical social movements were on the ascendency, marked a divergence from the optimism of the post-war liberal creed on race. Indeed, as an influential social policy advisor in the Nixon administration, Moynihan counseled a policy of “benign neglect” with regard to combatting the institutional forces limiting the opportunity of black Americans, especially the black working class. There was only so much government could do in the face of deeply rooted cultural deficiencies that allegedly afflicted the black “underclass.”
Just over a decade later, in 1978, African American sociologist William Julius Wilson, then working at the University of Chicago, published his immensely influential book The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. In this and other subsequent celebrated works over the ensuing two decades—based on research generously funded by foundations for himself and legions of graduate students—WJW reengaged the alleged problems of the urban black poor that Moynihan had, from WJW’s perspective, the “courage” to address. The approach to the topic by the self-described “unashamed liberal” diverged, to be sure, from New Right “scholars,” such as Charles Murray, who indicted overly generous social welfare benefits for providing disincentives to work and encouraging a whole host of dysfunctional behaviors among poor urban blacks. Instead, WJW located the roots of the problem in the disappearance of low-skill manufacturing jobs due to deindustrialization as the structural basis for the rise of “concentrated poverty” and a black urban “underclass” detached from the labor market. Additionally, drawing on CSS and Moynihan themes, WJW held that the black underclass living in “concentrated poverty” (or in CSS parlance, the “zone of deterioration”) who did not benefit from positive role models due to the exodus of black middle class and stable working class from the ghetto with the elimination of overt racism, developed cultural traits and behaviors that kept them mired in poverty. Family disorganization, due to a low “male marriageable pool index,” combined with the “concentration effects” of living in areas of extreme poverty, few middle class role models, and few job prospects, all contributed to forging a self-perpetuating culture of poverty that made it nearly impossible to advance.
Thus, from WJW’s perspective, the hopes of Myrdal, Cayton, Drake and other adherents of the liberal race line had been, for the most part, achieved. The artificial barriers for “free competition” in American life had been greatly reduced if not eliminated. But, due to blind, economic structural forces, the poorest African Americans could not advance. Historic racism played a role in creating their plight but not contemporary, ongoing racism, which had declined significantly. Therefore, in this respect, coming in the context of a declining, rather than ascending U.S. capitalism of the long post-war boom, WJW did not evince the same optimism as the CSS, which foresaw that blacks mired in the zone of deterioration would eventually be able relocate to areas of greater opportunity. This mobility was blocked by, on one level, the broader structural changes, but more immediately by the pathological culture that had developed in the black ghetto. But, WJW’s analysis did maintain continuity with some elements of “racial democracy” ideology, historically associated with black civic elites such as himself, by emphasizing the need to reform the underclass who could not enter the mainstream on their own. The need for elite action was legitimated by the language WJW used to describe this group, since an “underclass” is an inert force that does not speak, but must be acted upon.
Although not nearly as stridently as Moynihan, WJW was criticized for being blind to the continuing reality of racial discrimination and for promoting a conservative, blaming the poor analysis.22 Being categorized as a neoconservative incensed Wilson since it clashed with his social-democratic intellectual self-portrait. His 1987 work, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, can be read, in part, as an attempt to counter what he saw as this political defamation by laying out his policy prescription to address the plight of the black ghetto poor. In this book, published at the tail end of the second Reagan administration, he called for the federal government to implement a mass, race-neutral jobs program to rebuild urban America and address the crisis of the urban poor. Significantly, this clarion call was not made as that of an organic public sociologist tied to social movements but rather, in the Robert Park tradition, as counsel to political elites. Indeed, by the 1980s, WJW was becoming a trusted Democratic Party advisor consulted by Richard Daly, Paul Simon, Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, and Bill Clinton, becoming a policy advisor for the latter’s successful 1992 presidential bid.23
Despite this “liberal technocrat” being brought into the halls of power, WJW’s calls for public works, in the context of the rightward-shifting politics of both major parties, was going nowhere.24 But, his construction of a black underclass and the call for action to address the plight of this helpless dysfunctional inner city demographic, as real estate interests were rediscovering inner city neighborhoods as targets of reinvestment, made WJW’s prescriptions potentially very useful. Indeed, he and his work became increasingly influential in the late 1980s and 1990s as national and local states began gearing up for a new round of “urban renewal” through public housing demolition. The findings and claims by WJW on the sources of poverty, as political scientists Larry Bennett and Adolph Reed explain, helped make the case for dismantling public housing as a progressive, anti-poverty initiative.
By giving analytical primacy to the role of social isolation and the effects of concentrated poverty, Wilson . . . present(s) a picture in which very poor people suffer most immediately from bad individual behavior stemming from moribund social networks. From this perspective, improving people’s conditions requires altering their patterns of behavior and interaction by, among other ways, dispersing them throughout neighborhoods in which very poor people do not predominate—in which . . . more affluent residents can act as social buffers against disorganization and as role models discouraging pathological behavior.25
WJW’s work—which provided an academically vetted, benevolent, antipoverty, anti-racist gloss to dispersing the poor—was embraced and deployed by local and federal officials to legitimate the federal government’s HOPE VI public housing downsizing and privatization program and other poor people “mobility” schemes. The Democratic Clinton administration, which oversaw the first wave of mass public housing demolitions, was particularly adept at this. A 1999 White House ceremony highlights the importance of the renowned African American Harvard sociologist for justifying Clinton’s regressive social welfare agenda. At the gathering William Jefferson Clinton lauded “William Julius Wilson whose work has deeply influenced what I have tried to do as President,” as he awarded the Harvard University sociologist the National Medal of Science.26
While Wilson’s works have played a crucial role legitimating the dismantlement of public housing, they are, it must be emphasized, not unique. Other academics have also pointed to a structurally produced defective culture to explain black poverty. As explained above, Moynihan also emphasized the need to change the defective behavior and values of the black poor in order to address poverty, rather than a need for redistributive programs. Yet, as Moynihan himself pointed out, WJW’s work was warmly received, while he was denounced:
The family report had been viewed as mistaken; the benign neglect memorandum was depicted as out-and-out racist. By mid-decade, however, various black scholars were reaching similar conclusions, notably William Julius Wilson in his 1978 study, The Declining Significance of Race.27
Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s seemingly radical 1993 book, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, did emphasize, in contrast to Wilson, the continuing presence and significance of racial discrimination in housing and real estate that operate to maintain African Americans in segregated and hyper-segregated conditions. Yet, despite this difference, they agreed with Wilson that poor inner-city blacks have a self-defeating pathological culture in which “in place of traditional mores that assign value to steady work, family life, the church, and respect for others, a drug culture and its economy have arisen.” Segregation, they argued, has forged “a nihilistic and violent counterculture sharply at odds with the basic values and goals of a democratic society.”28 The logical public policy prescription that flows from this indictment is to dismantle public housing.29 Social scientific backing for “deconcentrating poverty” through public housing dismantlement can also be found in the policy prescriptions included in the collaborative publications of “three prominent American Urbanists,” Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom.30 The various editions of their influential text, Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century are an exemplar of what political scientist David Imbroscio calls “liberal expansionism,” the “almost hegemonic policy approach embraced by American urbanists” and state policy makers.31
Why, then, did political and policy elites invoke Wilson’s name, and consult with him so frequently and publically, when other social scientists are making similar arguments? The critical difference is that with Wilson the critique came from an African American authority, which provided greater legitimacy for public officials pursuing a public housing demolition agenda.
Here we come to the delicate but unavoidable issue concerning the role the race of a social theorist plays in determining what Alvin Gouldner refers to as the “social career of a theory.” Not only was Moynihan white, but he wrote at a time of heightened racial consciousness and mobilization, both inside and outside the university. As a white, he was susceptible to charges of racism. . . . Even the voluble Moynihan was reduced to silence when it came to parrying the charges leveled against him by black scholars and activists. . . . Wilson too, had his critics, but at least he was immune to the charge of “racism.”32
This excerpt underscores the way racial identity is wielded to help legitimate racial inequality in the post-Jim Crow era. Political scientist Cedric Johnson uses a similar line of reasoning to explain why the views of minority neoconservatives are given so much attention:
What distinguishes the color-blind conservatism of Ward Connerly, D’Souza and the like from their white counterparts is the social weight afforded to their claims because of their racial identity. Their criticisms are deemed more genuine because of their firstperson racial perspective and avoid the stigma of racism that might accompany an attack on redistributive public policy by white pundits.33
Legitimating the Dismantlement of Public Housing in New Orleans
During a twenty-year span between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s, federal and local officials, in collaboration with private developers, demolished all ten of the city’s traditional public housing developments that had emerged between the 1930s and 1960s Keynesian era of social reform. The successor, “mixed-income,” privately run developments included only a fraction of the previous public housing apartments in which low income families paid 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities and which had provided shelter for over 60,000 people at their height in the late 1970s, some 20 percent of the city’s black population. Below I examine how the construction of the new geographies of race and class in New Orleans were legitimated. Drawing from interviews, participant observation, and local newspapers I demonstrate how public officials, developers, non-profit poor people advocates, and public housing resident leaders invoked Wilson’s “deconcentrating poverty” ideology, as well as other ideological tropes, to justify eliminating traditional public housing in New Orleans.
Developer Pres Kabacoff
The most important private developer in the privatization of public housing in New Orleans has been Pres Kabacoff. Born in 1945 to the son of a prominent hotel owner, real estate developer, and civic leader, Kabacoff’s elitist, paternalistic approach to social change and social problems shares much with the Chicago School. He explains his philosophy in a 2004 interview with the author.
I’ve always been a civic activist, concerned about issues of poverty and race. My parents were open to that, and we were Democrats, and we worked for the Sterns, and the Sterns were great philanthropists…so I came from that environment. And that wasn’t that standard fare at the time…. My first efforts were in the late 70s, decided that public education was where it was at. It has been a recurring theme ever since. I put together a group of folks, and said “let’s fix it, change it,” and realized that I didn’t have a mandate to accomplish it, and was able to get Norman Francis (the president of Xavier University, a Historically Black University) to come in and create a school-business partnership, which was a way to get business involved….34
Consistent with CSS, he saw poor blacks, living in zone of deterioration, as wallowing in dysfunction. Similar to the pessimism reflected in the Moynihan report, Kabacoff’s view identifies internal obstacles that prevent poor African Americans in public schools making any progress on their own. Yet, with the schools over 90% African American, as well as most of the teaching staff and administration, white elites needed black elites, such as Xavier University president Norman Francis to vouch for them in order to intervene in the schools.
Kabacoff, in the same interview, then goes onto explain, using ecological metaphors favored by CSS, how the depth of isolation of a large segment of New Orleans black community was deepening dysfunction.
Well, it’s like the Grand Canyon, it goes down like that, you think that just over time it just gets deeper and deeper, but that’s not the way it works….The Grand Canyon comes down to deposits, rocks, and the rocks build up, and all of a sudden they break down and pressures things up. So if you don’t figure out how to do things gradually they’ll happen cataclysmically, that’s my thinking, and ahhh, I felt as though if we don’t start embracing the black community, educating them, getting them involved, and the rest of it, and get situations…(that) it would get like it is today. (Emphasis Added)35
Kabacoff goes onto to explain how the deepest of the deposits, of dysfunction, are located in public housing. He then turns to Wilson to support his claim that public housing promotes dysfunction and the need, therefore, to dismantle these communities. “The biggest impact I ever got,” Kabacoff explains, “was [from] the Julius Wilson book, Truly Disadvantaged.” This book drove home to Kabacoff the detrimental impact of the loss of role models, and [that]
we just got to break this stuff [poor black communities] up. That influenced me in everything that I’m doing, and I think I’m one of the few people [that got it]. . . . I guess what they don’t understand in this town . . . what ten housing projects, 50,000 people concentrated in an area, [what] that meant for a city. So . . . that’s my background.36
Kabacoff continues to invoke WJW in order to justify his position on dismantling public housing because of the pathological culture it foments.
And he (WJW) wasn’t very popular among the blacks. He was thought of, as a, you know, they just wanted to say it’s all race. And we were saying no, its jobs, role models, housing policies that ended up requiring more and more people living in the projects. So that was the guy that influenced me the most.37
The repeated summoning of the intellectual (and racial) authority of WJW to justify his position provides further support for Stephen Steinberg’s argument that “part of the impetus for Wilson’s elevation into an icon came from white elites who, as Derrick Bell often points out, need a black cover for their regressive positions on race.”38
With the backing of WJW, Kabacoff finds the courage and justification to make the hard choices, regardless of the pain it inflicts on the poor black communities that are dismantled.
If you take the attitude that, “look Pres, just leave it like it is, leave Iberville [public housing development] like it is, because these people are close to jobs, they don’t want to disrupt their family life, their relationships, it breaks down connections that they have,” ya, there is some minuses, but at the end of the day, most of the kids that come out of there don’t go anywhere, this doesn’t work, so, there are some tough choices…39
Black Elected Officials
Black public officials also drew on the ideas of concentrated poverty, and the dysfunction it allegedly produced, to legitimate demolishing public housing. Former mayor Sidney Barthelemy (1986-1994) invokes this theme to explain his support for the recommendations of the so-called “Rochon Report” that his administration commissioned in 1989 and that called for slicing in half the number of units:
The recommendations made a lot of sense. Part of the problem was the concentration of poverty. And then, most of the poor people were concentrated in public housing. It was too dense. And it needed to be de-densified…or the density reduced. And that was his [Rochon’s] recommendation…40
Others were blunter on the need to “break up poverty.” James Singleton, the African American city councilman whose district included the St. Thomas development, said in the mid-1980s, according to architect Davis Jahnke, that “the best thing that could happen to St. Thomas would be to drop a bomb on it and to annihilate it.”41 While not invoking WJW by name, both Singleton and Barthelemy, two influential black political leaders, clearly drew on the social science vetted idea of concentrated poverty causing dysfunction to justify their plans for city-administered low-income housing.
Singleton’s invocation of military language to describe how the inner-city black poor needed to be dealt with reflected the decline of liberal racial orthodoxy and the turn to the language and practice of neoliberal authoritarianism. Racial liberalism, as we recall, provided support for the black dysfunction thesis but, nonetheless, had faith that they could eventually be lifted out of the zones of deterioration and into the mainstream. In contrast, in the neoliberal era, black elites’ optimism that the poor, or at last a large percentage, could be rehabilitated has evaporated and they have consequently increasingly embraced coercive state responses. Thus, we have Mayor Marc Morial (1994-2002), the successor to Barthelemy, providing furtive support for punitive measures for the unrehabilitatable black urban poor. Immediately following President Clinton’s 1996 state of the union address that demanded a “one strike and you’re out” eviction policy for public housing residents accused of any crime, Morial gave a full-throated endorsement.
We need . . . to send a message to public housing tenants that we are going to make their neighborhood safe, and if anyone is involved in drugs in those neighborhoods, they are going to forfeit their right to public housing.42
The quotes above from local and national Democratic Party elected officials highlight what Loïc Wacquant calls the “hypersecuratist discourse that saturates the political and journalistic fields.” In the context of the deindustrializing city, elites “assert [that]…police and carceral management is the ultimate remedy….the only means of ensuring public ‘safety,’ and that we have no alternative to contain the social and mental turbulence induced by the fragmentation of wage work and the polarization of urban space.”43
Public Housing Tenant Leaders and Nonprofit Officials
A key part of the “hypersecuratist” discourse is dividing the deserving and non-deserving poor, between “those who merit being salvaged and ‘inserted’….into the circuits of unstable wage labor and those who must henceforth be durably blacklisted and banished.”44 This distinction was reflected in the 1996 HOPE VI HUD application that was partly written and signed-onto by tenant leaders from the city’s St. Thomas public housing development and their nonprofit advisors. The “Tough Screening Requirements” section of the HOPE VI application begins with a quote from tenant leader Fannie McKnight declaring that “Some people gotta go!”—that is, some of her neighbors could not gain admission to the future redeveloped “New St. Thomas” (which developers later unilaterally renamed “River Gardens”). Following the quote, the authors explain that:
HANO and the residents recognize the need for “good neighbors” who obey the law…and respect their neighbors. They will work with all residents to improve their behavior, but we are eager to develop a strict new lease that will be enforced, including enforcement of “One Strike You’re Out” clause.
In fact, in the workshops which led to the agreement to rehouse only 240 families whose incomes are below 30% of median, there was agreement that as many as 100 families currently living on site will not be able to qualify for readmission to the new St. Thomas under the tough new screening process.45
This excerpt highlights how far tenant leaders and self-identified progressive, anti-racist nonprofits in New Orleans had distanced themselves from not only “social democratic” ideology, that held housing to be a right, but even from “racial democracy.” The earlier optimism of the liberal orthodoxy on race that held the black poor could be incorporated into the mainstream had given way to neoliberal pessimism, where changing poor people’s behavior is accomplished through evictions and incarceration.
Public Housing in the Aftermath of Katrina: The Ideological Offensive Intensifies
Historically, public housing in New Orleans has served not only as a source of affordable housing, but as hurricane protection as well. Indeed, as in the past, many residents and their families and friends sought refuge in the “bricks” as Katrina approached in late August of 2005. After the levees broke the sturdy brick apartments continued to provide protection, but with authorities blocking any aid getting in and a mandatory evacuation order, residents were forced to leave. In the wake of Katrina a deeply racialized “clean sheet” narrative took hold, which held the mass evacuation and destruction of the city provided a grand opportunity to remake New Orleans by undoing the problems of the past. A central part of this renaissance plan was sweeping away public housing, the poor that resided there, and the dysfunction these settings allegedly created.
Pauline Lipman, in her study of school privatization and gentrification in Chicago, emphasizes the way that targeted neighborhoods are discursively constructed as “blighted” in order to justify “their seizure … for state-assisted private real estate development, and for gentrification.”46 She adds that, particularly in the United States, “the cycle of neglect, racial containment, and redevelopment of central cities is justified by the pathologizing racial discourse of the ‘ghetto.’”47 In the aftermath of Katrina, the specter of recreating the “failed experiment” of dysfunctional black public housing communities was invoked by various actors to legitimate the refusal to reopen the traditional, little-damaged, public housing complexes despite this being a clear violation of international law. One of the first interventions in this regard, although it was not intended for public consumption, was made by Baton Rouge Congressman Richard Baker. In early September 2005, before even the floodwaters had receded from the city, the real estate entrepreneur and longtime opponent of New Orleans public housing was in a celebratory mood, exclaiming to colleagues on the House floor that “We finally cleaned up public housing. We couldn’t do it, but God could.”48
Baker’s outburst represented an example of what Gerald O’Brien calls the “organism metaphor” used to denigrate vulnerable groups. “The target group,” he explains, “is portrayed as a threat to the integrity of the social body” and thus must be eliminated in order to prevent “the contamination of the healthy segments of society by the unhealthy segments.”49 This proto-fascist discourse, drawing from social Darwinist thought, has a long history in the U.S., having been used to justify immigration restrictions in the early 20th century, eugenicist-informed state involuntary sterilization against those defined as “feebleminded,” and restrictions against Japanese from owning land and gaining citizenship and, during World War II, forced internment. Although not the dominant ideological trope, these ideas were employed as part of the attack on public housing.
The neoconservative version of not reopening public housing was outlined by New York Times columnist David Brooks. In a column entitled “Katrina’s Silver Lining,” he argued that concentrated poverty had to be broken up since, if it is not, “then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.”50 The argument, consistent with neoconservative thought, was that generous social programs had created an underclass culture averse to advancement through work and education.
The third, and most influential, argument that pathologized public housing and thus legitimated federal and local officials not reopening the developments came from the liberal version of deconcentrating poverty. WJW himself articulated this thinking on national television in the days after Katrina. While he and Brookings Institution and former Clinton HUD official Bruce Katz were interviewed on PBS’s News Hour, the Harvard sociologist advocated for a public- and private-sector jobs program that targeted low-income people and lauded President Bush for recognizing in a recent speech the problems of racial inequality and persistent poverty. He then moved to articulate the justification for deconcentrating poverty.
Another thing, it would have been good if he had talked about the need to ensure that the placement of families in New Orleans does not reproduce the levels of concentrated poverty that existed before. So I would just like to underline what Bruce Katz was saying and that is that we do have evidence that moving families to lower poverty neighborhoods and school districts can have significant positive effects.51
Katz made clear that “moving families” meant they would not return to the city.
I think the city will be smaller and I’m not sure if that’s the worst thing in the world. I think we have an opportunity here to have a win-win. I think we have an opportunity to build a very different kind of city, a city with a much greater mix of incomes. And, at the same time, we have the opportunity, if we have the right principles and we have the right tools to give many of those low income families the ability to live in neighborhoods, whether in the city, whether in the suburbs, whether in other parts of the state or in other parts of the country, live in neighborhoods where they have access to good schools, safe streets and quality jobs.52
This was followed by Xavier Briggs—a former HUD official under the Clinton administration and then MIT sociologist—circulating a petition on the listserve of the Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association, under the title “Moving to Opportunity in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina.” The main thrust of the petition touted “a growing body of research” that demonstrates the “significant positive effects” of “mobility programs” that break up “concentrated poverty.”53 First among the signees were William Julius Wilson and his fellow Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks. Over 200 sociologists signed onto the call.
These interventions all came in the context of the refusal of the Bush administration—which controlled the local public housing authority—and with the full backing of the city government, to not reopen public housing. The pronouncements by academics, while not specifically mentioning public housing, clearly provided support for its closure—a decision that was actively being challenged by grassroots organizations. In the tradition of the elitist CSS, Wilson, Katz, Briggs and other liberal academics and policy elites directed their counsel to state and media elites, rather than to the residents opposed to being “deconcentrated.” This approach, as Reed and Steinberg point out, is not surprising considering that “the poverty research industry, of which Wilson is an avatar and leading light, has been predicated for decades on the premise that poor people are defective, incapable of knowing their own best interests, that they are solely objects of social policy, never its subjects.”54
Local Officials Make Their Case
The “deconcentrating poverty” trope was useful for legitimating a variety of initiatives that would make it difficult for poor people to return, such as not reopening traditional public schools. For example, in October of 2005 Mayor Nagin waxed on about a conversation he had with former President Clinton who shared with him the wonders of “a school model in North Carolina where they have great success…[by] mix[ing] kids of different income levels. And the poor kids performed as well as everybody else. And I think with New Orleans going forward, that model works. Let’s not concentrate all poor, all rich.”55
Other officials used harsher language. A prime example is the tirade unleashed by African American city Councilman Oliver Thomas in February of 2006, just after public housing residents and supporters had rallied to demand the reopening of the St. Bernard public housing development. At a city council hearing, following a call by a displaced public housing resident that the developments be reopened, he thundered, “We don’t need soap opera watchers right now.”
We’re going to target the people who are going to work…at some point there has to be a whole new level of motivation, and people have got to stop blaming the government for something they ought to do….There’s just been a lot of pampering, and at some point you have to say, “No, no, no, no, no.” . . . If our legs don’t hurt, you can walk somewhere. I’m saying these things to motivate my people. (Emphasis Added)56
Thomas’s conservative version of the culture of poverty, in which he indicts generous social programs for undermining a work ethic among “his people,” helped spur further demonization and stigmatization of public housing residents. In particular, the fact that a black official was making these indictments provided cover for white politicians to do the same. The most prominent of these assaults were made by former city councilwomen Peggy Wilson during her 2006 mayoral campaign. The white Republican contender, whose base was the city’s swanky uptown neighborhoods, ran television ads with footage of public housing and black men in the background accompanied by a narrator intoning that as mayor Wilson would not allow “gangbangers” and “welfare queens” to return to New Orleans. At a mayoral debate, a month after Thomas’s tirade, Wilson emphasized that “There are people we don’t want back in this city. We don’t want the drug dealers, we don’t want the gangs, we don’t want the pimps, we don’t want the welfare queens. We want zero empowerment of those kind of people in our community.” She made it clear that “those people” were New Orleanians living in subsidized housing.57
Others, such as white city councilwoman Stacy Head, a fervent opponent of public housing, invoked WJW’s “deconcentrating poverty” as well as “empowerment” arguments to justify not reopening public housing. After Congresswoman Maxine Waters introduced a bill to block demolition and reopen public housing, and then announced she would holding a hearing in New Orleans on the proposal, Head fired back with a widely distributed letter.
. . . Congresswoman Maxine Waters will hold hearings in New Orleans to decide whether to require HUD to reopen public housing . . . and ban all demolitions. I am opposed . . . I am a strong believer in mixed-income housing and deconcentrating poverty . . . . I firmly believe that the decisions made with regard to public housing will greatly impact New Orleans recovery—from the immediate issues of health care delivery, education, and crime—to the long-term issues of revitalizing communities and empowering people to escape from poverty. (Emphasis Added)58
Official tenant leader Cynthia Wiggins also participated in the demonization game. Yet, unlike Wilson, Wiggins, unsurprisingly, distinguished between the deserving and underserving poor. In an interview with NBC News reporter Martin Savidge she declared that “Some of these people that live in public housing need to get up and work.” She added that “I think it’s unfair to me and a whole lot of people who get up every day and go to work.”59 Underscoring this distinction, Wiggins and the officially vetted city-wide tenant council distributed t-shirts that read “The Best of the Rest: Public Housing,” followed by a listing of all the developments. The message conveyed was that only the deserving poor, rather than the dysfunctional underclass, were welcome back. Thus it came as no surprise that Wiggins and the other officially recognized tenant leaders supported the mass demolition of some 5,000 public housing apartments, and their redevelopment into “mixed-income” communities.
Conclusions on the Opening of the Public Housing Frontier
“All politics in capitalist society,” argues political scientist Adolph Reed, “is class, or at least a class-inflected, politics.”60 The politics of seizing public housing lands and dispossessing communities has indeed been a class one, and in particular a “class struggle from above” variety led principally by real estate and banking interests, and their state allies at local, regional and national scales.61 Over the last three decades this layer has accumulated “fortunes” through opening the public housing “frontier,” to use the metaphor employed by the late Marxist geographer Neil Smith to explain “the dynamic of rent-intensifying real estate development commonly described as gentrification.”62 A prime, but by no means isolated, example of this state-facilitated fortune making is that of New Orleans developer Joseph Canizaro. The city’s most powerful real estate mogul made some $70 million in profit from the increase in land values of his riverfront property as a result of the demolition of the adjacent St. Thomas public housing development.
The deployment of a legitimating ideology has been an indispensable and integral component of this class struggle from above designed to dismantle what Catherine Bauer, a key figure in the emergence of public housing, termed “perhaps the most clear-cut and uncompromising [pro-working-class reform] adopted under the New Deal.”63 These ideological attacks at times have come wrapped in the ugly, thinly-veiled-cum-openly-racist rantings of Richard Baker, Peggy Wilson, or drunken, white, male LSU football fans.64 At other times they have been delivered in the form of the more sober neoconservative ruminations of columnist, and American Sociological Association honoree for reporting on Social Issues, David Brooks, or the tough-love, racial uplift sermons of black Democrats such as Oliver Thomas. Yet, by far, the most influential ideology justifying accumulation by dispossession through destroying public housing has been the deconcentrating poverty ideology. Underscoring its significance is the way this ideology has become materialized in the form of state policy, such as HOPE VI and its successor program under the Obama administration, the “Promise Neighborhoods” initiative. Further underlining its hegemonic status is the way the ideology is inscribed in the political practice of nationally influential, progressive, even consciously “anti-racist” groups, such as PolicyLink, The Opportunity Agenda, The Center for Social Inclusion, Poverty & Race Research Action Council, National Low Income Housing Coalition, Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, Harlem Children’s Zone as well as a whole host of smaller, lesser-known local groups and personages who have been intimately involved in the day to day work of legitimating poor people removal.
How do the contemporary progressive, anti-racist, African American deconcentrators, and their leading avatars such as former public interest advocacy lawyer and PolicyLink founder Angela Glover Blackwell, compare with the black civic elite proponents of “racial democracy” identified by political scientist Preston Smith? We do see some striking parallels. Both the mid-20th– and early 21st-century black civic elite do not object to, or at minimum accept as inevitable, the structured class inequalities of capitalism. What they do get incensed over is the racially inequitable distribution of those inequalities and burdens. Their political agenda was and continues to be breaking down the artificial barriers preventing the full participation of African Americans and other racial minorities in American society. The goal is to create what PolicyLink terms “communities of opportunity” that will allow everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other ascriptive category, to compete on an equal footing to obtain the fruits of American capitalism. But, in a major contrast with the contemporary black deconcentrators, the black civic elites of the Keynesian-Fordist era were not proponents of privatizing the public sector, such as public education and housing. Yet, today, the progressive, anti-racist, deconcentrators are passionate proponents of demolishing public housing, privatizing public education, demonizing teacher unions, and other key components of the neoliberal urban revanchist agenda.65 Rather than seeing the public sector as indispensable for the full participation of African Americans in American life—as it was for an earlier generation of black elites—it is now more often disparaged by the more recent crop of black civic elites for abetting dysfunction and isolation. Thus, much more than in the past, facilitating access to the market, and eliminating any artificial barriers to it, has become the core of the new, neoliberalized version of a progressive, anti-racist agenda.66
Sociologically, the new black elite deconcentrators are best understood as a particularly important component of what Adolph Reed terms the “black professional managerial class” (BPMC), or what the editors of the Black Agenda Report term the “Black Misleadership Class” (BMC). The BPMC/BMC deconcentrators, who beyond the NGO chieftains include an array of accountants, lawyers, architects, academics, consultants, and elected officials, have not been the major financial beneficiaries of opening the public housing frontier. The bulk has been accrued by banking and real estate industry titans who are also a major source of funding for the deconcentrators and their organizations. Nonetheless, the BPMC/BMC has been relatively well compensated for their crucial contributions to the effort, which can help explain why they so vigorously and passionately defend their work. A prime example is CEO Glover Blackwell, with whom we began our story. Her nonprofit’s 990 IRS tax return from 2013—the most recently available—show the former Rockefeller foundation vice president and University of California law grad took home over $300,000 in total compensation, nearly placing her in the ranks of the proverbial “1%,” at least income-wise.67 Clearly Glover Blackwell and other leading lights of the BPMC have become integral components, key lieutenants, in the urban front of the class war on the working class. Any effective class struggle from below armed with a social democracy ideology which holds housing, jobs, health care, education and other basic necessities are a right and not dependent on “moving to opportunity,” creating markets, or adhering to supposed middle class values, will inevitably have to confront the BPMC/BMC as activists in New Orleans discovered.
Gentrification of the City, eds. N.Smith and P.Williams (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986), 34; Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Real Problem with Selma: It doesn’t help us understand the civil rights movement, the regime it challenged, or even the significance of the voting rights act,” Nonsite.org, January 26, 2015, http://nonsite.org/editorial/the-real-problem-with-selma