Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Week 21 of the occupation
August 31- September 7, 2013
Nearly 50 years ago, James Boggs wrote an essay that startled the country. It was entitled, “The City is the Black Man’s land.” Boggs described the historic pattern of American municipal governments as the place where ethnic groups gathered and developed economic and political power. He explained how cities had been dominated at various times by Irish, Polish, or Italian immigrants. With changing demographics in cites, Boggs argued in 1966, “black Americans are next in line.”
Within the next year, Carl Stokes became the first African American to head a major U.S. city, Cleveland. He shared the honor with Richard Hatcher of Gary and Walter Washington, who was appointed mayor of Washington D.C.
Other cities followed. By the early 1970’s, as racial tensions intensified throughout the country, a new wave of African American leaders emerged, including Kenneth Gibson in Newark, Maynard Jackson in Atlanta, Tom Bradley in Los Angeles and our own Coleman Young in Detroit.
In predicting this rise of black political power, Boggs also talked about the reaction of the white power structure. He said: “Racism is so deeply imbedded in the American psyche from top to bottom, and from right to left, that it cannot even entertain the idea of black political power in the cities. The white power structure …resorts to every conceivable strategy to keep itself in power and the black man out.”
Boggs went on to describe the consequences of the effort to maintain white power and privilege saying: “Those who invent or support such schemes must also reckon with the inevitable consequences: that the accumulated problems of the inner city will become increasingly insoluble and that the city itself will remain the dangerous society, a breeding place of seemingly senseless violence by increasing numbers of black youth, rendered socially unnecessary by the technological revolution of automation and cybernation, policed by a growing occupation army that has been mobilized and empowered to resort to any means considered necessary to safeguard the interests of the absentee landlords, merchants, politicians and administrators to whom the city belongs by law but who do not belong in the city and who themselves are afraid to walk its streets.”
For James Boggs, the only way to a future of vibrant cities was authentic self-government that emerged, as people were “mobilized behind leaders and organizations of its own creation and prepared to reorganize the structure of city government and city life from top to bottom.”
The twists and turns of history, of course gave African Americans political power in cities as economic power was shifting out to suburban sprawl.
By the 1980s, this political power was being steadily challenged at state and federal levels. Through redistricting, orchestrated legislation, term limits and single issue organizing, right wing extremists shifted political control away from the cities and to the majority white and wealthier suburbs.
Emergency managers are a continuation of the efforts to destroy and dismantle our cities precisely because they have become sources of African American political power, progressive innovation, and humane values.
It is coupled with a frontal assault on the very idea of self-government. Right wing columnist George Will, for example, proclaimed that Detroit’s financial woes show “self -government has failed.”
Will describes the decades of African American leadership as nothing more than “decades of voting to empower incompetents, scoundrels and criminals, and to mandate unionized rapacity — no one is responsible for anything. Popular sovereignty is a chimera because impersonal forces akin to hurricanes are sovereign.”
He says the city reflects “unchecked power” and “The consequences of such power — incompetence, magical thinking, cynicism and sometimes criminality — are written in Detroit’s ruins.”
The struggle we now face for Detroit’s future is bringing into focus critical questions about the nature of self-government, political power, racial justice, and public interests. It is a struggle that matters.