How Ghetto Politics Has Outlived the Ghetto, and Still Holds All Of Us Back

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

The class of cultural, business and political hacks who pass themselves off as “black leaders” never tire of celebrating the sixties. But they have nothing to say about the seventies, eighties or nineties when the prison state and drug war engulfed the black lower classes and the gains of the New Deal and Great Society rolled back, all during their watch. They're ghetto politicians, and ghetto politics have failed.

How Ghetto Politics Outlived the Ghetto, And Still Holds Us Back

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Remembering the sixties, forgetting the seventies, eighties and nineties.

Our black class of political and cultural misleaders never tire of evoking, recalling and celebrating the sixties Freedom Movement. It was after all, the era of unified and successful black opposition to Jim Crow which catapulted them into their current prominence. It opened the doors of legislatures, city halls, corporate boardrooms, elite universities and the entertainment industry to thousands of black faces in high places.

But why do our leaders have shockingly little to say about black progress during the seventies, the eighties, the nineties, and the new century, excepting the ascension of Barack Obama. One would almost believe nothing important happened in those decades of their actual leadership. One would be wrong. Plenty happened in that time, but almost none of it reflects well on the current crop of leaders and the outdated, self-serving version of black politics they have foisted upon us.

Black politics as we know it originated in the mid-twentieth century urban ghettoes of places like Chicago, Detroit, Harlem and Atlanta. The first World War cut off the supply of white immigrant labor at the same time it created demands for greatly increased production. The solution was to attract black labor to mostly northern cities. Blacks who came north, and to places like Atlanta and Birmingham as well, found they were still discriminated against, confined to certain areas of the city regardless of class. They developed their own institutions, their own consumer market and their own social relations which to some extent sheltered and protected inhabitants from interactions with hostile whites.

What is meant by “the ghetto”? When and why did the ghetto end?

But the black ghetto, as sociologist Loic Wacquant explains in this fifty minute interview, was not just a poor or even a segregated neighborhood. The ghetto was primarily a social device, a contraption, he calls it, for extracting black labor while stigmatizing and confining all black people to a particular urban space. Inevitably, the ghetto developed its own politics as well, chiefly the politics of opposition to the racial segregation which brought it into being. The eventual success of ghetto politics in mobilizing black communities against Jim Crow played a major role in dissolving the traditional black urban ghetto by the early 1970s. The other factor that spelled the end of the urban ghetto was that US manufacturing no longer needed black labor.

At the same time the ghetto lost its function of separating blacks from the larger society while extracting their labor, better-off blacks were finally able to move outside the old ghetto areas. Job opportunities for those left behind vanished. Unions, which exerted pressure to keep wages up, even for those not their members, dwindled and wages for those who could find work fell. Social programs from the 30s New Deal and the 60s Great Society from housing assistance to welfare were cut again and again. The drug war was unleashed upon black communities nationwide and the prison state rolled out in the former ghetto neighborhoods to contain and confine the poor, the marginalized, the supposedly delinquent, the lowest economic class of African Americans.

The left-behind inner city neighborhoods are the exclusive sphere of the lowest economic rungs of African America, over-policed, denuded of wealth and social services, stripped of protective and nurturing social institutions. They are nothing like the ghettoes of a half century ago. They are something else altogether. But the political leadership, the politics of the ghetto, with its pretensions to uniting and representing all African Americans regardless of economic class survive and persist to this day.

What do present-day ghetto politics look like?

It's a sweet deal for ghetto politicians like Philly's Mayor Michael Nutter, like Detroit's Congressman John Conyers, like Mayor Atlanta's Kasim Reed and a host of others bigger and smaller, women and men. All of them, especially when confronted by white opponents, pretend to be heirs of the civil rights movements and stand-ins for the aspirations of all African Americans. Atlanta's Kasim Reed claimed to be a “civil rights lawyer” even though he spent his career defending corporations that violated civil rights, not the humans whose rights were trampled upon. John Conyers was re-elected more than twenty times in the hope that his seniority would finally benefit his inner-city constituents.

Black America's old-school ghetto political leadership starts from the assumption that there are no classes and no class differences in the black community that matter. So the unfolding of the prison state to engulf the black lower classes is something they collaborated in, instead of working to slow it down or stopping it. The nationwide campaign to demolish public housing and explicitly NOT gather data on the whereabouts and well-being of those who were in those dispersed communities also punished only the black lower classes, so our ostensibly class-blind black ghetto leadership saw no harm in that either. Many of them have profited handsomely and directly from gentrification, from the literal dispersal of the communities which made their careers possible.

Again, the hollowed-out heart of old-school ghetto politics is the pretense that there are no class distinctions in “the black community” that matter. But it is a pretense, conscious or not. Black leaders in any city you can name will call press conferences, file lawsuits and occasionally throw up a token afternoon picket line to protest any threat to the set-asides of black contractors who do business with state and local government. That is the class of black interests which matter to them. But black mayors like Atlanta's Kasim Reed can declare their public intention to default on the pensions of a generation of city workers and teachers without a murmur or protest from black elected officials, from the National Action Network, the Urban League or the NAACP. When the interests of lower-class African Americans are on the line, our ghetto politicians from the president to the Congressional Black Caucus to our black state legislators and mayors are all AWOL.

Is Barack Obama a ghetto politician too?

By this definition of ghetto politics, Barack Obama, who most people would not imagine as a ghetto politician, is in fact the ultimate practitioner and beneficiary of ghetto politics. While he reassured whites that there is no white community, there is no black community, his career and legitimacy have been absolutely dependent upon a united black vote. His presidential campaign was a content-free marketing triumph, the ultimate evocation of people's hazy and imagined memories of the sixties. But while the Malcolm X Grassroots Organization recently showed, a black person is killed by cops or vigilante violence about every 40 hours, President Barack Obama could only be outraged when his class peer, the esteemed Dr. Henry Louis Gates was handcuffed and dragged off to jail from his own front porch.

Pre-katrina New Orleans was the poorest big city in the US, and one of the blackest. When the man-made disaster offered developers and their captive politicians the chance to cleanse the Gulf Coast of hundreds of thousands of black residents, many of whom had been there three centuries, the black misleadership class did absolutely nothing. There were thousands of black architects and city planners, tens of thousands of black lawyers and countless numbers of medical and public health professionals, as well as thousands of black elected officials in the US at the time. Did the powerful and affluent black leadership call a summit to come up with plans to rebuild the Gulf Coast with a place for its African American residents who were being dispersed across the country? They did not. Why? Because most New Orleans residents were renters, not homeowners. They were waiters and cooks, musicians and laborers and mechanics. If they weren't renters they owned no more than a small home. The dispersed African Americans of the Gulf Coast were not part of the class of blacks who mattered, even though we're all supposed to be in this together.

The black misleadership class are always praising, frankly worshiping black wealth wherever they can find it, as the potential salvation of African Americans. But all the seven or eight US black billionaires and near billionaires put together in their entire careers haven't sent as many kids to college or guaranteed the health care and retirement security of as many black families as the ATU transit workers of New York City in their illegal 2005 strike. But legalizing unions and the strike everywhere is something you won't hear from the mouths of ghetto politicians.

Even the likening of the prison state, which preys almost exclusively on lower-class blacks and Latinos, has only been comprehensible to the black political class by Michelle Alexander's faulty metaphor equating “mass incarceration” with “a New Jim Crow.” Until Ms. Alexander made it OK to talk about the prison state, albeit as “mass incarceration” something it really is not, strictly speaking, the black political class had no way to even begin to discuss it except as bad choices, personal and familial failures of the part of the poor.

It's not mass incarceration, it's class incarceration.

The prison state is in fact really NOT a new Jim Crow, because Jim Crow applied to ALL African Americans regardless of class. As Loic Wacquant shows in his latest work, a black person with a college education today stands only half the chance a black person with similar education did of going to prison 40 years ago. But a black male high school dropout is six times as likely to go to prison as his counterpart in 1970. Jim Crow was not a class thing, while the current prison state is very much class-specific. So it's not mass incarceration, it's class incarceration. Our black political class, still tied to the ghetto politics of old however, cannot admit the existence of class differences inside the African American community. The “New Jim Crow” metaphor provides them a way to shoehorn some of the reality of the ubiquitous prison state into their view of a black community without meaningful class differences. Before Alexander came up with it they had no way to discuss the results of the prison state without blaming its victims. The “New Jim Crow” then, is great metaphor, but poor analysis.

In the present era, old-school ghetto politics is a lie. Our black political class is still celebrating the sixties and ignoring everything that happened in the seventies, eighties, nineties and beyond because those are the decades of failures on their watch --- failures to understand and combat the unfolding the drug war and the prison state, failures to combat gentrification and privatization, failures to confront the dismantling of poor communities, the stripping of public services and the diminishment of black lives and livelihoods.

The failure of ghetto politics, and the black misleadership class that practices it, is the failure to acknowledge the existence of economic class within the African American community, and to stand up for the class interests of most blacks. It's time for a completely new black politics.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party. He lives and works in Marietta Ga and can be reached via this site's contact page or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.