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Politicizing the Centrality of Race in Post War Urban Histories

After finishing a degree in theology, I took a position as a pastor for a congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This small city of just under 50,000 people received national attention as an almost cartoonish example of the fiscal crises unfolding across the globe from Detroit to the European Union. In the aftermath of losing his first re-election campaign in over twenty years it came out that over the course of his administration “Mayor for Life” Steven Reed negotiated numerous risky financial agreements to fund and prop up failed infrastructure and development projects intended to transform the capital city into a tourist destination—including a conference hotel, museums, and a baseball stadium. Investigations revealed that the already strapped municipality was on the hook of multiple creditors for an estimated $1.5 billion.

Creditors, residents and city and state officials quickly mobilized at the prospects of bankruptcy. Ultimately, every effort made by citizens to declare bankruptcy or to prevent the privatization of public assets under a state-appointed Receiver was blocked by a bipartisan commitment in the state legislature to protecting the interests of the financial sector.

That experience made me acutely aware of how little I understood the dynamic forces that comprise contemporary politics and the anemia of popular explanations for the social conditions of the urban areas in which I had lived and worked. I wanted to better understand the forces behind the hollowing out of America’s cities, and why the usual activist and civic groups had continually failed to mount an effective opposition. I returned to graduate school in Philadelphia to study religion and political culture in the United States since the postwar era. I also hoped that engaging in graduate research would shed light on what kinds of political solutions were more promising than running political Hail Mary plays or cheerleading the latest palliative—usually bike lanes, food trucks and tax abatements—prescribed by real estate developers. No scholarship has proven to be more insightful, instructive and compelling to me in the course of my studies than that of Judith Stein, especially in her work on racial politics, political economy and social class.

Making sense of postwar American politics requires grappling seriously with the political significance and development of racial ideas and politics in relation to political economy and social class. The period witnessed the continued mass migration of rural southern blacks to northern cities, the civil rights movement and defeat of Jim Crow, a realignment of Democrats and Republicans, the formation of black radical groups and the emergence of a black political class in American cities. And yet, despite the complexity of these developments, many academic histories of postwar cities bear resemblance to the popular stories neighbors tell about their cities insofar as they turn to race and racism as explanations for how and why American cities changed so dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century.

Untangling and understanding the political significance of racial discourse in American history up to the present day is what makes Judith Stein’s critical approach to writing about race and politics an invaluable and generative model for would-be American political historians. In contrast to so many historians and social scientists writing about postwar history, Stein was not satisfied with constructions of shared racial interest as explanations for American political development. Whether analyzing Clinton-era racial politics in the pages of the Nation or reconstructing the social and political world of Marcus Garvey on the basis of extensive archival research, Stein consistently challenged her readers to historicize the social, material and political significance of racialized political discourse, and demonstrated that political appeals to racial interest can be illuminated by the light of changes, conflicts and tensions that existed within and between social classes.1

This is especially helpful in the context of current trends in the field of postwar urban political history and social science research. According to their overview of what they view as the most influential literature in the field over the last few decades, Thomas J. Sugrue and Robert O. Self, note the predominant focus on race, racial inequality, racial identity, and racial politics by scholars, despite significant methodological differences.2 They point first to the proliferation of scholars following Arnold J. Hirsch in “examining postwar cities as products of racial conservatism.”3 Like Hirsch’s history of post war Chicago, (and the contributions of Sugrue and Self to the genre), these histories are based on syntheses of social science urban case studies and often level criticism toward liberal elites for pursuing public policies that failed to address and often worsened racial inequalities in housing, employment and education.4

A second dominant trend they point to in the field reflects the influence of cultural historians and sociologists such as Robin D.G. Kelley, Michael Omi and Howard Winant.5 In their focus on racial formation, whiteness, and black culture, postwar civic institutions, political parties, municipal and federal government policies and mass popular political movements are either peripheral to everyday cultural struggles to define racial identity, or they are subsumed beneath a long and global narrative of white oppression and black struggle.6

Even though both of these distinct historiographical types foreground racial attitudes, racial ideologies and racial identity, it is surprising how often they fail to address basic, critical and compelling questions about race and politics. How, why, and for whom did conservative racial ideologies gain or lose support? What made the racial politics of a given historical moment appealing, feasible or pragmatic? What did developments in racial politics have to do with developments in political economy and class structure? At best, histories of postwar political culture that pass over these important questions convey that the historical and political significance of conservative racial ideologies and racial disparities is self-evident. At worst they perpetuate the myth that racial beliefs and attitudes are primordial historical forces that cause racial disparities.

Stein’s contention that treating racial identities and language as trans-historic leads contemporary intellectuals “into the realm of metaphysics” was well founded.7 Howard Winant for instance, adopts a decidedly apophatic theological rhetoric to discuss the political and historical significance of race and racism. In a representative passage from his history of race since World War II, The World is a Ghetto, he stops just short of defining race as the ground of all being:

Race has been fundamental in global politics and culture for half a millennium. It continues to signify and structure human life not only experientially, and locally but nationally and globally. Race is present everywhere: it is evident in the distribution of resources and power, and in the desires and fears of individuals from Alberta to Zimbabwe. Race has shaped the modern economy and nation-state. It has permeated all available social identities, cultural forms, and systems of signification. Infinitely incarnated in institution and personality, etched on the human body, racial phenomena affect the thought, experience, and accomplishments of human individuals and collectivities in many familiar ways, and in a host of unconscious patterns as well.8

Continuing in this vein, Winant states that “the race-concept” unleashed a process of global racialization that was, and continues to be, both “the cause and consequence of modernity” and “a fundamental condition of individual and collective identity.”9 Tellingly, Winant’s political telos is not a post-racial society. Race, according to Winant, is not “a social problem” that can be solved, but, “a fundamental social fact.” As such it is not merely the cause of exploitation but also for future political liberation.10

Like Winant, Kelley’s project requires engaging in a form of racial history that, despite careful and often interesting research into the culture of black Americans, is confounded by his insistence that black culture reveals a consistent subversive politics of resistance. In his history of black working-class resistance, Race Rebels, he discerns evidence for a distinctly black and radical politics in the culture of working-class black Americans regardless of era, region, ideology, social status, political affiliation, or movement participation. Just as Winant sees “the race-concept” as the central ideological force in modern history, Kelley stakes his project on an assertion of the, “centrality of race in the minds and experiences of African Americans.”11 “Race,” states Kelley, “particularly a sense of ‘blackness,’… figures prominently in the collective identities of black working people.”12

Kelley must also, in his words, “substantially redefine politics” in order to maintain that black workers, by virtue of a shared experience of racial oppression, participate in an essentially black political struggle even when their political activity conflicts with that of other black workers or when they have forged alliances with white workers. According to Kelley, it is a mistake for political historians to associate politics with social and civic institutions, public policies, partisan political contests, class struggle and mass movements. This untethering of race and politics from these narrow confines allows him to point to stereotypical features of black culture in a given period such as music, hairstyle, cursing, and graffiti, as evidence of black political solidarity:

If we are to make meaning of these kinds of actions rather than dismiss them as manifestations of immaturity, false consciousness, or primitive rebellion, we must begin to dig beneath the surface of trade union pronouncements, political institutions, and organized social movements, deep into the daily lives, cultures, and communities which make the working classes so much more than people who work. We have to step into the complicated maze of experience that renders “ordinary” folks so extraordinarily multifaceted, diverse, and complicated. Most importantly, we need to break away from traditional notions of politics.13

Within this theoretical move it is possible for Kelley to view the adaptation by southern black Communist Party members of black spiritual music and religious customs, or the presence of racial themes in their poetry and songs as signals of a sublimated subversive black nationalism held by black Party members in defiance of the Party’s “proletarian realism,” i.e. a commitment to working-class based internationalism.14 Given the range of internal strategic and ideological debates that define political party participation (to say nothing of black political thought in the US), and the subtlety of his evidence, even if Kelley has discovered a form of embryonic racial nationalism in black Communists, attributing it to the black experience of racialization reflects his own intellectual and political commitments more than providing grounds for them.

Kelley’s argument is only possible because he deliberately liquidates black politics of any particular material stakes, and by extension, of the pressing interests of black people. Only a metaphysical racial identity can supply what Kelley finds everywhere across time and space, namely, the participation of black domestic workers, sharecroppers, Communists, hep cats, preachers and rappers in single political struggle for a self-determined racial identity.15 Kelley’s narrow vision of black politics does more than a flatten out history. It erases stark class contradictions. While participation in a political tradition of resistance mediated by black culture may represent a pressing political objective for Kelley, it is a projection of his imagination that this represents the primary concern of black workers. As Stein observed in a reflection on contemporary efforts to define black politics solely in racial terms, “most people, including African-Americans, engage in politics to improve their lives, not to select their associates or affirm their identity. The desire for change in the social condition of African-Americans—not in their relationship with whites—has been the driving force of black politics.”16

If Kelley redefines politics and Winant waxes theological on race, urban historians in the mold of Hirsch attempt to avoid such pitfalls by historicizing the political dimensions of racial identity in a particular period and location. Even the best examples of this type, however, often fail to subject the historical terms of racial discourse (conservative or otherwise) to critical political, historical and material analysis. For these scholars, demonstrable racial discrimination and disparities in housing, transportation, education and employment functions as prima facia evidence that whites held racial ideological views and that these views, if not explain, the production of public policies that favored the material interests of one racial group over another.

Thomas Sugrue, in his justly lauded study of postwar Detroit, goes to even greater lengths than many of his peers to question this simplification.17 According to Sugrue, it was primarily political economy and federal government policy that shaped the material connotations of racial identity in the postwar era. Race became more associated with property tax policy than with beliefs in a natural biological hierarchy for an increasing number of Americans.

But despite this openness to economic and political influence on racial identity from above, Sugrue struggles to untangle further the relationship of local racial politics and racial inequality to broader social and political conditions. In order to avoid what he criticizes as the “ahistorical,” “reductionist” and “monocausal explanations of racial discrimination” found in an older generation of economists and sociologists, he attempts to “start with the important questions asked by whiteness scholars, but to provide a more rigorous account of the mechanisms that perpetuated racial difference in ideology and in experience.”18

In order to “bridge the cultural and the structural” Sugrue makes use of ambiguous and indeterminate theoretical language. That American capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have historically borne a greater share of this burden represents “two of the most important, interrelated, and unresolved problems in American history.”19 Similarly, the production of racial inequalities in Detroit is ascribed to “mutually reinforcing processes of ideology and political economy, of identity and self-interest.”20 However helpful these constructions might be for thinking about the historical ways racial inequality and inequality became inter-related and mutually reinforced one another, they are not always reflected in Sugrue’s historical narrative. Instead of a dynamic account of ideology, self-interest, public policy, and the forces of political economy as integrally related features of postwar American society, more often than not, Sugrue presents white racism, public policy and the movement of capital as a tragic combination of “forces that occurred simultaneously.”21

The relationship of racial discrimination in Detroit to the postwar American economy is arguably more than chronological and also more interesting. Even though Sugrue takes the changing shape of racial identity seriously, he, like others in this camp, presents racial discrimination in housing and labor as explanations for that without reference to the fact that in the US these are commodities bought and sold in a market that requires disparity to function, regardless of how those disparities are distributed or justified. Sugrue is correct to argue that the postwar transformation of Detroit was caused by a complex combination of deindustrialization, workplace segregation and housing discrimination. However, in attributing this discriminatory complex to “policymakers, large corporations, small businesses (particularly realtors) and ordinary citizens that created and reinforced racial and class inequalities and perpetuated the political marginalization of African Americans” we are left with the question, why did these people do what they did?22 Leaving that question unanswered implies that the tragedy of Detroit’s crisis might be a tale of personal ignorance or immorality.

These critical lacunae are why Judith Stein’s work is so helpful for understanding racial discourse and the political culture of American cities in the postwar era. She put two of the most common principles taught in historical and social science theory courses to work: that the meaning or significance of words is context dependent and that identities are socially constructed.

Despite frequent lip service paid to the claim that race and racialization are not naturally occurring phenomena, the implications that claim has for interpreting racial discourse are not taken seriously enough. For Stein, however, affirming that racial identities are constructed socially was not merely an obligatory genuflection to assure her readers that she, also, rejected a biologically determined racial hierarchy.

Popular identities, whether racial or nonracial, are constructed as people define their social and political objectives….The ways people define themselves are determined by their history, politics and class. They change. The same words have conveyed vastly different meanings and encouraged diverse actions. They mean less and more than they seem. People employ strategic fictions that can be understood only in context. They always must be understood as one element with other ideological beliefs that have nothing to do with race. And they interact with definitions made by other people, especially those who exercise power.23

What racial terms mean in a given context is no more fixed than the political projects and class interests with which those terms can be (and have been) associated throughout history. Stein recognized a tendency in both scholarship and popular racial discourse to overstate the influence of racial consciousness, identity and experience on the development of politics. But if racial identities are not transcendental or uniform, that scholarship has the relationship backwards, and the compelling question can be asked, to what social or political end or ends does a particular appeal to racial identity address?

If Stein’s approach to understanding the political and social utility of racial discourse is helpful for making sense of the racial politics of a figure like Marcus Garvey, it is also the case that it can help to make sense of the racial politics of twenty-first century historians and social scientists like Sugrue, Winant and Kelley. It is striking that neither popular nor academic accounts of postwar urban history offer much by way of a justification for making race and racism the central political concern in accounts of the decline of urban social conditions. True to form, Stein wasn’t afraid to attribute that tendency to the scholars’ own politics. In a short piece on what she saw as a misplaced and fanciful admiration for the Communist Party’s anti-racism campaign of the 1940s among historians, she speculated that the reason was “because many historians view antiracism as their first political principle.”24 To the extent that multi-cultural liberalism, anti-racism, and personal norms of empathy have displaced postwar racial conservatism as the dominant political ideology, it would be comforting if the sensitivity trainings and moral revival that have accompanied the ascendance of antiracist politics represented a serious effort to address the dire conditions of life in American cities or the kinds urgent problems that keep ordinary Americans awake at night.25 But I am suspicious that meeting such needs may fall much lower on the list of urgent demands for some social classes than others.


1.  Judith Stein, “History of an Idea,” The Nation, December 14, 1998; The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1986).
2.  Robert O. Self and Thomas J. Sugrue, “The Power of Place: Race, Political Economy, and Identity in the Postwar Metropolis,” in A Companion to Post-1945 America, ed. Jean-Christophe Agnew and Roy Rosenzweig, Blackwell Companions to American History (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006). Sugrue and Self note the influence of studies that frame postwar urban development in terms of political economy but cite only one scholar, Kenneth Jackson, as representative of this focus.
3.  Self and Sugrue, “The Power of Place,” 21.
4.  See, for example, Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960, Reprinted with a new foreword (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, updated with a new preface (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).
5.  Sugrue and Self, “The Power of Place,” 21; see, for example, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014); Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York, NY: Free Press, 1996) and Howard Winant, The World Is A Ghetto: Race And Democracy Since World War II (Basic Books, 2001).
6.  See for example, Kelley, Race Rebels, 5.
7.  Judith Stein, “Defining the Race: 1890-1930,” in The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989),103-104.
8.  Winant, World Is a Ghetto, 1.
9.  Ibid., 3.
10.  Ibid., 6.
11.  Kelley, Race Rebels, 5.
12.  Ibid., 5.
13.  Ibid., 3-4.
14.  Ibid., 103-121.
15.  Apparently, Kelley does not think that defining working class black culture as “resistive” is a form of the same racial essentialism he finds objectionable elsewhere. For instance, despite the fact that early twentieth century Communist cultural critics rightly, in Kelley’s view, “often exhalted [sic.] Southern black culture as resistive” they made the mistake of holding “an essentialist, race-bound definition of culture. Furthermore, like most American interpreters of culture, they tended to place virtually everything black people did under the rubric of ‘folk’ (ibid., 116).
16.  Stein, “History of an Idea,” 12.
17.  Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis, xvi-xx, xxxiv-xli, 5-14.
18.  Ibid., xxxviii, 7-10, and 284, fn. 284.
19.  Ibid., 5.
20.  Ibid., xxxviii.
21.  Ibid., xviii.
22.  Ibid.
23.  Judith Stein, “Defining the Race,” 77-78.
24.  Judith Stein, “Why American Historians Embrace the ‘Long Civil Rights Movement,’” American Communist History, 11: 1 (April 2012): 55–58.
25.  Jelani Cobb, “William Barber Takes on Poverty and Race in the Age of Trump,” The New Yorker, May 14, 2018, On the history of racial individualism and the increasing interest in educational responses to racial inequality see Leah N. Gordon, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
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