[News] Big Capital Swamps the Lessons of Katrina
news at freedomarchives.org
Wed May 9 17:02:14 EDT 2007
May 9, 2007
Big Capital Swamps the Lessons of Katrina
No Black Plan for America's Cities
By GLEN FORD
"Katrina is a metaphor for abandoned urban America," said Rev. Jesse
Jackson as he prepared to lead a "Reclaiming Our Land" march in New
Orleans, late last month. "There is no urban policy, and there must be."
But Rev. Jackson is wrong. An urban policy does exist, hatched in
corporate boardrooms and proceeding at various stages of
implementation in cities across the nation. Urban America is not
being "abandoned"--rather, the corporate plan calls for existing
populations to be removed and replaced, incrementally, a process that
is well underway. And the land is being "reclaimed"--by Big Capital,
with the enthusiastic support of urban politicians of all races from
coast to coast.
The problem is not the lack of an urban policy, but the failure to
formulate progressive Black urban policies and plans. Corporate
America and finance capital have both general and detailed visions of
what the cities should look like and which populations and
enterprises will be nurtured and served by these new and improved
municipalities--"renaissance" cities of the (near and, in some
places, very near) future.
Corporate planners and developers believed they had been blessed by
nature when Katrina drowned New Orleans, washing away in days the
problem-people and neighborhoods that would ordinarily require years
to remove in order to clear the way for "renaissance." Greed led to
unseemly speed, revealing in a flash the outlines of the urban vision
that would be imposed on the wreckage of New Orleans. As in a film on
fast-forward, the "plot" (in both meanings of the word) unfolded in a
rush before our eyes: Once the Black and poor were removed, an urban
environment would be created implacably hostile to their return. The
public sector--except that which serves business, directly or
indirectly--would under no circumstances be resurrected, so as to
leave little "space" for the re-implantation of unwanted populations
(schools, utility infrastructure, public and affordable private
housing, public safety, health care).
The bargaining power of labor would be reduced to zero by the
systematic introduction of itinerant and often undocumented workers
to replace the exiled African Americans--who are the most
union-friendly workers ("joiners") of all, a documented fact
well-known in corporate America. Much of the land previously
inhabited by the now-superfluous exiles would be put to other uses
(parks and golf courses, etc.) or designated for no use at all under
flood safety or environmental rationales. As a result, the value of
the remainder of land in New Orleans would in time increase
dramatically, making some people richer than before and rendering low
cost housing prohibitive in the future.
Most importantly, the "new" New Orleans would no longer accommodate a
Black majority (previously 67 percent), thus ensuring that the
"renaissance" could proceed politically unencumbered in what
corporate folks call a "stable" and "positive" business environment.
Black New Orleans and its diaspora have
heroically--desperately!--resisted the schemes of national, state and
local capital and governments. They have won some tentative victories
(among them, retaining a Black, although thoroughly corporate,
mayor), and been joined by many ardent allies. Some reduced semblance
of the old Black city will rise from the muck and ruin, thanks to
sheer force of will on the part of residents and the solidarity of
scores of progressive organizations and thousands of individual
volunteers. Corporate plans for the "new" New Orleans--which began
surfacing in the most grotesquely "ugly American" fashion just weeks
after the Great Flood while hundreds of bloated bodies were still
unidentified and unclaimed (some still are)--laid out in some detail
schemes to reinvent the city by allocating land to its "optimum" uses
(for business) and attracting and retaining the most "desirable"
population (for corporate purposes). None of these grand plans
projected a Black population numbering more than 30
percent--apparently, the maximum proportion tolerable in the "ideal"
Against huge odds, Black New Orleans--including activists who commute
to do battle from as far away as Houston--has struggled against the
privatization and charter-ization of what remains of the educational
system. They have fought to preserve the largely intact public
housing stock, despite the Bush regime's determination to wipe the
projects off the face of the city map. They attempt to rebuild their
homes in places where government at all levels erects every
conceivable obstacle. Of necessity, these are largely defensive
actions of a people under siege on all fronts, their ranks and
resources drastically depleted. But Black New Orleans has not failed;
they continue to struggle to overcome the greatest single calamity
ever to befall a U.S. city, exponentially compounded by racist
barbarians in government and business acting in concert.
It is African American leadership institutions that have failed Black
New Orleans, and left inner city populations across the land
defenseless in the face of Big Capital's schemes to remake urban
America in white-face. The exodus from New Orleans, and the effective
lockout that followed, were like a giant wave crashing down on the
city. Elsewhere in Black America, these same corporate Black-removal
forces propel a rising tide of gentrification that does not ebb. Big
Capital's urban offensive threatens to irrevocably disperse the
population base of Black political power, rendering forever moot all
dreams of meaningful African American self-determination. If Black
America fails to come to grips with the profound change in corporate
investment and development strategies that has occurred over the past
several decades, other "chocolate cities" will soon share the same
fate as New Orleans--only on a slower schedule.
Of the top 12 cities in Black population, seven saw a loss in African
Americans as a percentage of total residents between 1990 and 2000:
New York City (1)
Los Angeles (7)
Katrina events, of course, would push New Orleans (previously Black
city #10) into the African American population percentage loss
column, in the most horrific fashion imaginable.
Four cities among the top 12 became Blacker in the 1990-2000 decade:
(See U.S. Census Bureau links
and <http://afgen.com/popula.html>afgen.com/popula.html for Black
city populations in 2000 and 1990, respectively.)
There is no question that some of the slippage in the Black
proportion of population in seven top cities is due to immigration,
mainly Latino. However, the U.S. Census Bureau drastically changed
the way it counts Hispanics between the 1990 and 2000 censuses,
making it impossible to reliably measure the impact. What is
immediately apparent is that the seven cities that became less Black
in the Nineties are all concentrated corporate headquarters locations
or, in the case of Washington, DC, the headquarters of the federal
government. These are places that corporate and finance capital are
most keen to "make over" in order to provide the urban "ambience"
believed most amenable to their employees, management and clients,
and for the general sake of corporate prestige.
Let there be no doubt, however, that the general "back to the cities"
corporate imperative--resulting in gentrification--will soon begin
tilting other heavily Black municipalities in the same direction.
Newark, New Jersey, once considered among the quintessential
"chocolate cities," went from 58.5 percent Black in 1990 to 53.5
percent in 2000. Since then, the center city "renaissance" project
has gone into high gear, attracting thousands of prized white
professionals. By 2010, Newark is likely to no longer have a Black
majority. Atlanta will be significantly less Black.
New York's de-Blackening has been the most dramatic. For the first
time since the so-called Draft Riots of 1863 (actually, a monstrous
anti-Black pogram that slaughtered hundreds) forced tens of thousands
of African Americans to flee the city permanently, the 2005 U.S.
Census update showed a net loss of Black population for the city as a
whole. Also for the first time, Latinos suffered a net loss in
population in Manhattan, Ground Zero for the nation in both
gentrification and corporate headquarters. Black numbers in Manhattan
have been dropping for some time. Political impacts inevitably follow.
Others will maintain that the decline in Black proportions in central
cities is a sign of progress, because African Americans are rapidly
suburbanizing. However, as anyone who knows the environs of
Washington, DC, understands, a great chunk of the Black exodus across
jurisdictional lines is "push-out"--the direct result of
gentrification of the inner city. In many cases, the ghetto has
simply moved across the city line. Upscale Blacks--and the term is
quite relative, especially when considering wealth, or net worth--are
also priced out of the most attractive city neighborhoods, and encamp
on the periphery to occupy homes formerly owned by whites who have
fled the poorer Blacks who were forced out of the city.
The result is a scattering of African Americans and dilution of Black
political power in a growing number of central cities. There can be
no comparison between the political, cultural and social impact of
Black majorities in suburban jurisdictions such as Prince Georges
County, Maryland and Dekalb County, Georgia, and Black political
control of great cities like Washington and Atlanta. And the frenzy
of gentrifying in Chicago may preclude that city from ever again
electing a Black mayor.
The flow of Big Capital to the cities signifies the end of a cycle
that began after World War Two. Fearing a return of Great
Depression-like conditions with the end of defense industry
hyper-production, and the political turmoil that would follow among
the millions of returning soldiers and sailors, the federal
government and corporate America launched the biggest public works
and private investment project in human history: the suburbanization
of a continent-wide nation. The grand design flipped the script on
patterns of habitation that had prevailed since the dawn of
civilization. The rich had always lived in the centers of cities,
where the amenities are, while the poor were relegated to the
periphery. That pattern still obtains everywhere else on the
globe--except in the United States.
Blacks were left out of the Great Makeover, but inherited the
cities--many of which lost half or more of their white populations to
the suburbs, over time--by default. After many decades of
suburbanization the inevitable happened, a phenomenon closely
resembling a classic capitalist crisis of overproduction. The suburbs
had stretched too far, commutes were too long, the infrastructure was
strained by the artificial and historically unnatural sprawl and the
impossibility of providing city-style amenities to far-flung suburbs.
The over-stretched rubber band began to snap back.
In the interval between the post-war urban white exodus--which was
well underway long before the Black rebellions of the Sixties, and
was much more a "pull" than a "push"--and today's encroaching
gentrification, African Americans won nominal political power in many
cities. Now the fin de cycle is upon us. African Americans in
general, and Black politicians in particular, seem to have never
considered that the era of "chocolate cities" might end, or the
consequences to Black welfare and political power. On the contrary,
most Black politicians, having had no plan of their own for their
cities, made careers of bending over frontwards--deeply--to attract
corporate investment on any terms (as do most of their white
counterparts). At the current stage of the cycle, for many heavily
Black cities, there is no need to bend over--the corporations are
coming for their own reasons, with briefcases full of plans for
another Great American Makeover. Large-scale Black removal is
integral to the project.
Katrina showed everyone with eyes and ears the full scope of the
corporate plan, whose outlines had long been evident in New York,
Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and elsewhere. Gentrification is
actually the result of methodical corporate penetration, a planned
process requiring intimate collaboration with local government. In
the absence of Black plans for urban makeovers, corporate plans will
prevail, and a slow and tortuous African American exodus will result.
The conclusion is obvious: Blacks that aspire to leadership must dive
into urban planning with a vengeance. As I wrote on July 29, 2004:
"We must disrupt and supersede corporate development schemes, by
becoming city planners in the service of the people. We must take the
initiative away from the corporations, who are currently in
possession of all the data that make up the life of a city, and who
use it selectively to present their self-serving brand of
"development" as the only option available. We must redefine the term
"development," to mean change that benefits the people impacted by
the project. Development that does not meet that definition, is unacceptable."
Had the post-1970 crop of urban Black leadership used the intervening
decades to formulate urban plans and policies that transformed the
cities in ways that served the needs of the new Black majorities and
pluralities, they would now be capable of bargaining with onrushing
capital--and would have had something to offer to the people of New
Orleans as corporations presented plans for the coup de grace on the
Black majority. But the misleadership class spent their terms in
office wasting the historical opportunity, and the window is rapidly closing.
Only an urban movement for democratic development, rooted in mass
mobilization of city residents around comprehensive plans for the
betterment of the existing population within the city's borders, can
tame the corporate juggernaut and preserve urban Black political
power. When the window shuts--after Black populations are
scattered--the game will be over.
Glen Ford is executive editor of the
<http://www.blackagendareport.com/>Black Agenda Report. He can be
contacted at Glen.Ford (at) BlackAgendaReport.com.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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