But in a world where inequality has been increasing and where the fastest growing jobs are mainly the lowest paying ones, why should we be inspired by a vision that instead of promising to pay people better, promises only to make sure that the badly-paid are not disproportionately black or Latino? And that men are just as fucked as women? It’s easy to see the attractions of bourgeois anti-racism and bourgeois feminism for white women and people of color seeking to establish themselves among the (shrinking) bourgeoisie. From their standpoint we should be as concerned that black, Latino, or female-owned businesses are relatively poorer than their white or male counterparts as we are with the growing power of employers to obtain labor on increasingly exploitative terms.
The deeper appeal of reparations talk for its proponents is to create or stress a sense of racial peoplehood as the primary basis for political identity. This movement’s psychological project is grounded on two beliefs: first, that rank-and -file black people suffer from an improper or defective sense of identity, and second, that an important task of political action is to restore or correct racial consciousness that the legacy of slavery is supposed to have distorted or destroyed.
This doesn’t mean that gay marriage isn’t a good thing, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be vigilant in fighting all kinds of discrimination. It just means that fighting discrimination has nothing to do with fighting economic inequality, and that the commitment to identity politics has been more an expression of our enthusiasm for the free market than a form of resistance to it. You can, for example, be a feminist committed to equal pay for men and women and also be committed to equality between management and labor but, as the example of everyone who’s ever campaigned against the glass ceiling shows, you don’t have to be and aren’t likely to be.
It is of course a complete accident that the same year that marks the tenth anniversary of the failure of federally maintained levees, incompetent disaster relief, and rampant profiteering in the face of a relatively pedestrian hurricane known as Katrina should also mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication by an obscure Assistant Secretary of Labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan of The Negro Family: The Case for National Action…The chance of history that brought the anniversaries of the Moynihan Report and Hurricane Katrina together helps elucidate both the long-term implications of Moynihan’s dominance over a large portion of American discourse regarding inequality—a discourse that bears a great deal of responsibility for the effects of that fairly mundane storm—and the long historical temporalities that produced Katrina as a storm of unthinkable tragedy. Indeed, Katrina did not form to the southeast of the Bahamas on August 22, 2005. It formed when Moynihan helped consolidate the culture of poverty thesis in 1965. It formed when a conception of freedom grounded in contract, work-discipline, and various versions of moral economy defeated its multiple historical alternatives. It formed when American politics ceased to effectively challenge these defeats. In fact, if we further widen our lens, we…
Even a cursory read of the Moynihan Report makes clear that Moynihan is not guilty of crass victim blaming. Indeed, as William Julius Wilson eloquently stated, Moynihan’s “presentation certainly lacked elegance, but it was an attempt to synthesize structural and cultural analyses to understand the dynamics of poor black families and the plight of low-skilled black males.” But while Wilson proffered that statement as a defense of Moynihan, his formulation functions equally well as a critique of the Moynihan Report. Specifically, Moynihan’s efforts to synthesize a cultural and structural analysis of poverty revealed a conception of structure rooted not in political economy but in ethnic pluralism. Simply put, what Moynihan meant by structural sources of inequality was racism (which established barriers to black social and economic progress) and the damage it inflicted on the institutions that regulated cultural norms among African Americans. To be sure, Moynihan’s conception of “structural inequality” offers some insulation against the facile charge of “victim blaming”; nevertheless, Wilson’s formulation ultimately highlights a more significant problem with the Moynihan Report. Moynihan was not particularly concerned about the impact of structural changes in the nation’s economy on black unemployment and poverty. As I will discuss below, the Moynihan Report’s indifference to the consequences of…
Depicting federal aid as the only means by which to pursue an antipoverty agenda, the mayor [Moon Landrieu] also argued that diminishing program funds required the city to grow in ways that reflected the vested interests of those fleeing the city center in order to facilitate their return. Already in the process of shepherding tourism and real estate development interests to the city, this narrative willfully erased material inequalities produced by codified segregation and unequal access to housing, employment, and education as well as hardened conceptualizations that blamed poverty on individual choices. Thus, this logic rationalized the market relations of a gentrification economy by implying it was imperative to defray costs for serving the poor. Ultimately, local governing officials deployed these assumptions to sanction their own participation in the making of middle-class neighborhoods.
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 Richard Baron because of his role in overseeing the destruction of public housing in New Orleans and across the country. 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. 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?
Most political discussions of New Orleans since the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster have relied heavily on notions of the city’s exceptionalism. Right-wing pundits pointed to the city’s reputation for corruption and its citizens’ alleged complacency and poor planning decisions (e.g., “Why would they build below sea-level?”) as central causes for the disaster, rather than the austerity or hubris of the Bush White House. This image of New Orleans as a political backwater or banana republic was used by some Congressional Republicans to discourage further federal investment in rebuilding the city. Liberal activists and city boosters, in turn, reached for notions of cultural particularity to stake their claims for the city’s reconstruction, arguing that the Crescent City’s unique colonial heritage, architecture, and sundry contributions to American music and foodways were all precious national resources. The trope of native cultural authenticity ultimately served to unite right of return advocates who insisted that New Orleans would not be the same without its black working class neighborhoods, and the various commercial interests that comprise the tourism-entertainment complex, around a recovery agenda that has still reproduced inequality and segregation. This essay explores and rejects another prevalent notion of exceptionalism, the underclass myth that has been central to…
The victory condensed in the forms of participation enabled by the VRA is necessary—a politics that does not seek institutional consolidation is ultimately no politics at all—but not sufficient for facing the challenges that confront us in this moment of rampant capitalist offensive against social justice, but neither are the essentially nostalgic modalities of protest politics often proposed as more authentic than the mundane electoral domain. It is past time to consider Prof. Legette’s aphorism and engage its many implications. And that includes a warrant to resist the class-skewed penchant for celebrating victories won in the heroic moment of the southern civil rights movement as museum pieces disconnected from subsequent black American political history and the broad struggle for social justice and equality.
Both these pieces betray a really naïve or underdeveloped understanding of electoral action, its costs and benefits, the unavoidable messiness of engaging in it. And, by the way, the same messiness applies to all efforts to build and maintain broad alliances, all of which require finding ways to navigate locating points of agreement and looking the other way at least temporarily at potentially serious differences and contradictions.