[News] Big Capital Swamps the Lessons of Katrina

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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


"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" 
urban environment.

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)

Chicago (2)

Houston (5)

Los Angeles (7)

Washington (9)

Dallas (11)

Atlanta (12)

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:

Detroit (3)

Philadelphia (4)

Baltimore (6)

Memphis (8)

(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.

Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110

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