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 Plenty happened in that time, but almost none of it reflects well on the current crop of leaders and the outdated, self-serving version of black politics they have foisted upon us.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)


This is a great start to a tough but necessary dialogue

This is an excellent essay and this topic or challenge should be front and center at BAR periodically.  It should be tackled in some way shape or form at least every month if not every other week.

It says so much I don't know where to begin so let me start small as I gather my thoughts.  An honest and fortright discussion along these lines will create some painful truths and contradictions, many already alluded to in this essay.   But there any many additional nuances to what is being said and what (hopefully) WILL be said and debated by BAR readers and supporters.

Let me start by saying I moved to Detroit in June of 2011 and it became quickly apparent that I was living in a parallel universe, I could write a book on the things they left me shaking my head in utter disbelief.  Detroit (or East St. Louis) could be Exhibit A for this story-line.  Two of the most dysfunctional cities in America, much of it due to our own devices.  Sure White Flight has hurt Detroit and institutional red-lining by insurance companies and banks has arguably hurt it even more, but the Black leadership class is about as f***ked up as it gets.  And 10,000 Blacks moved out of Detroit in the past decade according to the census, so it ain't just whites voting with their feet.

Truth be told these "Leaders" and their counterparts across America, don't give a shit about the poor, they exploit them greatly.  And one of the ways they do it is by playing the ends against the middle, the proverbial race card.   They will get the masses all worked up about White folks, particularly in the suburbs, being racist and sure many are, but while they getting the Negroes all worked up they cutting deals behind the scenes or moving to the burbs they damn self.

Think about this one glaring, to me indisputable fact/reality:  Why is there so much dilapidated property in Detroit, particularly commerical structures, and who owns it?  Poor Black folks clearly don't own it so why is it standing?  Just chew on that for a minute.

Let me throw another grenade into the discussion, because if we gonna get real and have real conversation then all bullshit needs to be put aside.  Yall gonna get a better feel here why I hate Political Correctness, shit just skewers real facts and thus real solutions. 

Gun Control?  N*gga Puhleez!!! If you don't own a gun in Detroit for self-defense you ain't living in the ghetto.  (I don't and I ain't).  If I lived where some decent, hard-working Black White and Hispanic folks lived, not only would I own a gun, I'd own a damn rocket grenade launcher.  I'd make Ted Nugent blush.

There is some nuance and complexity to this ESSENTIAL AND NEEDED DIALOGUE that is painful and problematic, but we must deal with it.  Can't run from it.  To give you some perspective, let's go back to Chris Rock: 

(Here some Detroit N**ggas, btw Rev. Marvin Winans got robbed few months before his press conference with Jesse whose car was stolen while he was here) 

That Liberal shit about gun control?  You can hang that up, better to concentrate on something else like AIDS, or incarceration of non-violent offenders, or safe-sex and birth control.

We have to deal with the low expectations and twisted culture too many Blacks have embraced, confront it and rid ourselves of it.  We have to confront and deal with our own pathologies, ain't gone be no damn social programs to deal with it, hell might not be no food stamps or Sec. 8 come Jan. of 2013.

I know I've opened a can of worms, but blame it on Bruce, he opened the door, I'm just knocking at it loud.  Plus, yall wouldn't expect anything else of me, right??? LOL

I'm just getting warmed up Bev, as I collect my thoughts

Stick this in your Gun Control/Let's Ban Assault Weapons pipe and smoke it: 

October 9, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Poll: Crime drives Detroiters out; 40% expect to leave within 5 years

From The Detroit News: 

Nearly two-thirds, 66 percent, say the city is on the wrong track. The poll found low support for all city officials except Police Chief Ralph Godbee, who retired Monday amid a sex scandal that emerged after the survey was conducted.

Residents don't believe city leaders can change things.

Nearly two-thirds of residents, 63 percent, say city leaders have no plans for a turnaround. The poll found an "extraordinary lack of support" for elected officials including Mayor Dave Bing and the City Council, Czuba said.

Nearly 58 percent of respondents said crime is their "biggest daily challenge." That far surpassed unemployment and the economy at 12.8 percent.

 By the way, the former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's trial is entering its second or third week.  The first couple weeks have centered on his "Civic Fund" which was suppose to help the elderly and children, but became Kwame's personal piggy bank. Here's the rub, some of the money came from a state grant that Kwame received by cutting a deal with the state GOP leadership, a quid pro quo.  Kwame used his influence as Minority Leader (Dem) in the State house. So ordinary Black folk got f**ked twice, a good ol double f***king.  First, no doubt the budget deal didn't help them, second, the grant targeted for them was appropriated by Kwame.  So here's ANOTHER example of selling out the "people" for personal gain and ego.  And keeping your power and status quo with this "us vs. them" "city vs. White suburbs" horseshit, when you making out like a bandit collaborating with those you tell the masses are racist.  (The trial is suppose to last something like 4-6 months, why I don't know, they should be able to convict his ass in 4 weeks of testimony). 

The government has broken down the complex racketeering case in chapters. So far, jurors have heard two chapters. The first one involved allegations that Kilpatrick steered a state grant, which was meant to help kids and seniors, to his codefendant Ferguson, who allegedly used the money to renovate his office, and to his wife, Carlita Kilpatrick, who allegedly received more than $100,000 for a project she did little to no work on. The second chapter has involved allegations that Kilpatrick used the civic fund as his personal piggy bank, defrauding donors and violating IRS rules about nonprofits. Specifically, Kilpatrick is charged with mail fraud for allegedly soliciting civic fund donations through the mail or Federal Express. He also is charged with failing to report the civic fund perks on his taxes.

The next chapter starts Thursday. The subject: extortion.

The Kilpatrick Enterprise is accused of shaking down contractors and instilling fear in the contractor community to make sure that Ferguson got a cut of city contract deals.s 

Next up, I'll talk about how corruption is not only a cancer but breads inefficiencies that stifle the very economic development that could lift some Black folks out of poverty.  And much of the inefficiencies are rooted in worthless Black "leaders" who carve out their little fiefdoms and power centers and create needless layers of bureacracy via Boards and Commissions to keep the status quo intact.


Never forget what kind of people we struggle under!

We can name names and call names, but we must always remember what kind of people took this country, enslaved our people, and continue to use and mentally manipulate every ignorant wealthy, working, and poor man to help them rape, pillage, usurp, and commit genocide around the globe!

If you think that they committed their vile sociopathic crimes in the past and just stopped at some point, you are mentally disturbed and in complete denial on a multitude of levels! If you think you can blame others and not yourselves (ourselves) for helping to keep 'people of color' in this condition (and in harms way), you are as demented as I am!

There are very few of us who can claim to be beautiful atruistic humanitarians, and many of us who are completely oblivious to our insanity and our obvious roles in keeping this racist "white supremist" 'kingdom'  functioning at full force and at our own peril!

The Bravest Woman in the USA

I don't know her name and I only saw her once, on a friend's TV, since I don't own or watch TV, a black woman who was a member of the audience on the Oprah Winfrey show, but I'll never forget her quiet but steely courage.

Oprah was having a get-out-the-vote drive for the sexist, racist, classist, genocidal US government, and there were many members of the audience who hadn't registered to vote and were more than happy to do so for Oprah's sake. I don't even recall which election it was, but it may have been the '08 Obama race.

Only one woman in the audience refused to register to vote, and Oprah brought her up to the stage. There she sat with the audience begging her to register to vote, millions of people watching on TV, and Oprah herself down on her knees, crying and pleading with this woman to register to vote for her own oppression.

And she refused. Firmly but steadfastly. You couldn't push this woman into foolishness with peer pressure. She didn't care if she was the only person in the world who knew better than to vote in elections where the votes don't even have to be counted, aren't verifiable, and serve only as a referendum on which candidate you'd prefer to have making your decisions for you without you being able to hold them accountable or compel them to represent your interests--if she stood alone against the world, she was not going to bow or bend, but would stand strong.

How much strength and courage does that take? I can't even begin to imagine. This was the type of person Kipling wrote about when he said, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you." Okay, he was sexist and thought he was referring only to men, but this woman personified his words.

And just seeing her gave me a little bit of strength, courage, and common sense also. I'm an election boycott advocate. After years of voting against my own interests, I finally stopped and I've been encouraging others to do the same.

You know who the winners of this election will be, you know who the beneficiaries of their agendas will be, and it won't be you. If you want to say, "Not in my name," then take your name off the voting rolls and stop signing your name at the polls or on your mail-in ballot. If you sign your name, you are consenting. Is that what you really want to do? Me neither.

Consent to Tyranny: Voting in the USA

And the wheel on the bus goes round and around

From today's Detroit Free Press.

One of few major cities in the US lacking a functioning transit system, and here's how they respond, PATHETIC.

Henderson & Kaffer: Detroit lawmakers snub Ray LaHood, leave transit in limbo|newswell|text|FRONTPAGE|p 

An excerpt from the article:

Stephen: Well, we know the answer to that. It's politics. And race. And time-worn squabbles over power and control. Some legislators are concerned about how many appointees Gov. Rick Snyder will get on the transit authority board. Some are worried they'll look "weak" to Detroiters if they willingly cede control of the city's transportation infrastructure -- as if preserving control of a costly and dysfunctional bus system were a sign of strength.

We started this column with a joke. But why do I think the only ones laughing are LaHood and his staff, who can't seem to give away $25 million to legislators in the nation's most underserved transit wasteland?

Nancy: That's a terrible explanation. I'm shocked! I'm outraged! Actually, I'm not. At this point, nothing really surprises me. Especially the rebuffing of folks who are trying to extend a helping hand to Detroit. 

Here is the response from a Black, male Detroiter:

UNBELIEVABLE. Or should I say believable, considering the fact that we are dealing with a dysfunctional group of lawmakers. I doubt that I will see a regional transit system in my lifetime. These people obviously cannot hear the cries of those who elected them to give them a transportation system they can rely on. What do they care as long as they can go wherever they want in their own cars. Take away their cars and see how fast an rta gets built. People need to get to jobs, schools and doctor appointments. Not to mention enertainment venues, grocery stores, museums and libraries.  

Don't take my word for it folks, take the words of the average Detroiter. 

Wizard G, I don't disagree with the thrust of your comment, but my response is that anyone who can read what we are writing should accept the fact that racism will exist until either a man-made or natural disaster (meteorite) wipes the human race off the face of the earth.

How long did "Post-Racial" America last after all?  About as long as Alicia Keyes contemplated leaving her husband for me.

Black folks need to stop spending their energy on being stupidly obsessed with trying to eradicate racism.  I don't know of any racist White person who REFUSES to accept $$ from people they despise.  How many Blacks do you know who boycott buying Coors beer if that is their beer of choice?  How many have stopped banking with Bank of America or any of the other giants who've raped the entire world? 

Think of what Blacks could accomplish if they got over the fact that most, IF NOT ALL, races or ethnicities in American don't either like them or respect them?  I believe on focusing inward not outward.

Ghetto Politics

Mr Dixon your article is right and on point. The Black community needs a new politics that addresses the needs of all Blacks regardless of class status.

Ghetto politicians have failed because they represent the Democratic Party,not Black people .The Democrats are the party of the  Confedreracy and the Dixicrates.  A part of history ghetto politicians ignore.  The ghetto politicians fail to remmember that Dr. King and others of that time represented rights for Black people, they did not represent a political party.

There are many historical developments that ghetto politicians failed to deal with:  the challenge of the corporate state versus the nation state, globalization, the end of the Vietnam War,corporate consolidation, outsourcing, work visas, mass immigration and the state of permanet warfare.  I am sure I left something out.

Nothing was done to provide for veterans coming back from Vietnam.  Better educated Blacks moving out of the ghetto did not harm the economics of the ghetto.  The loss of employment to working class Blacks from jobs moving overseas or out of state is what hurt the economics of Blacks left behind.  So do work visa and mass immigration harm the economies of ghetto communities. Black workers in the South have been displaced by immigrant workers in factories, agricultural and construction.  Ask the Blacks who live in Georgia.  I live in NYC.  In NYC many times where you find Blacks working, they are foreign born Blacks.  Mayor Blumberg himself has said that he needs more immigrants to run NYC's economy.  Not a peep from ghetto politicians or preachers!  Meanwhile NYC has 50% Black unemployment.  These ecomonic hardships caused by corporations are never addressed.

The problems have been clearly delineated.  The solution? Independent Black politics free of democrates or republicans.  Not long a go Blacks in NYS tried to establish The Freedom Party in NYS as an independent vehicle.  A Nehru jacket wearing ghetto politician who postures as representing Blacks dropped the ball because serving the democratic party in NYS was more important to him. 


@Eric You are on point, I see you but let me raise you one

Great points my friend.  Throughout history and presently, there's been a tried and true traitor that will sell out the greater good for a few pieces of gold.

But let me add one more layer to the discussion because it bears stating.  It was the same Ghetto Politicians who stymied the morally upright and concerned White Liberals who were frankly among the first (aside from BAR) to--pardon the pun--call a spade a spade.

What many people don't realize is that principled White progressives/Liberals started peeling back the layers on Obama literally within a year of his presidency.  Chris Floyd and Glenn Greenwald are just two that immediately come to mind.

And when I read the readers's comments at Common Dreams, Truthdig, and Truthout, I KNEW support for Obama and the Democrats was on the wane.  Even more I knew that some people had completely given up on the 2 party duopoly, never to return.   But sadly, many of these principled White folks were either ignored or called racist by the Ghetto Politicians and their followers for speaking truth to power. 

The logic became so twisted that any White or Black person criticizing Obama for morphing into a Blue Dog was accused of being Republican themselves. 

I'm not the least bit surprised that Obama is running neck and neck with Mittens, I've been telling any Black (or White for that matter) person who cared to listen and who had critical thinking skills YEARS AGO, that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was losing or had lost faith in Obama and the Party itself.  No more would they buy into "lesser-evilism."

And people who cared about the plight of persons or color or the working or middle class were treated with nothing but insults and slights. 

Now I don't believe racism will EVER disappear  until the human race has disappeared as I've said many time, but I damn sure don't believe, have never believed all Whites are racist.  We need to get over THAT ghetto mentality too.  Once again, it was many principled White folks, the ones who actually WORKED HARDER than their Black counterparts to get Obama elected that sent out the clarion call YEARS AGO that we didn't vote for Hope and Change, we voted for Bush II!

(Well yall did anyway, I voted 3rd party in 2008).