Urban Race Relations: "Everything Changed"?
Hidden Continuities of Urban Racial Inequality Before and After 9/11
by Paul Street
September 18, 2003
I'll always remember the day I tried to engage in that silly exercise called "speaking truth to power." It was early December of 2001. My topic was American policymakers' decision to place nearly a million black people behind bars and to mark more than 1 in three black males with a felony record. As a member of a Chicago-based council of advisers working to help ex-offenders "reintegrate" into the "free world," I was invited to a pleasant conference room to give my thoughts on these matters to Matt Bettenhausen, Illinois' "Deputy Governor for Criminal Justice and Public Safety." Along with eight other council members, I presented facts and reflections on the vicious circle of racially disparate mass incarceration. Among other things, I noted that there were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than the number of black males enrolled in the state's public universities. There were more black males in the state's correctional facilities just on drug charges, I added, than the total number of black males enrolled as undergraduates in Illinois state universities.
Bettenhausen, who hails from a local family of accomplished racecar drivers, arrived in time only for the last talk. He apologized for his lateness, explaining that he had been meeting with the state's Attorney General to discuss the "War On Terrorism." His eyes beamed with pride as he told us that he had become much busier since his appointment as the state's "first-ever Homeland Security Coordinator." With an American flag pin prominently displayed on his lapel, he regaled us with the latest reports on the United States military campaign in Afghanistan. He was clearly relishing his new supposed importance in the battle between planetary good and evil. "Wow," a fellow presenter muttered, "he watches CNN."
After thus communicating the relative insignificance of our issue at this moment of sweeping global consequence, Bettenshausen told us that then Illinois governor George Ryan would not be reversing his recent decision to eliminate higher education and vocational training for prisoners from the state's budget. These cuts, he claimed, were compelled by the "post-September economic downturn" - a dubious dating of an overdue correction in the capitalist business cycle.
Tires squealing, he apologized for racing off to another meeting related to "the war on terror." I was instantly reminded of James Madison's comment that "the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad." Another phrase also came to mind: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
According to a great national myth propagated by the in-power right wing War Party and its allies and enablers in the dominant state-corporate media, "everything changed" on September 11, 2001. Before 9/11, this authoritarian narrative runs, Americans lived in peaceful division, pleasantly but naively stuck in their own little prosperous domestic spheres. We were cheerfully but innocently blind to the dangers of a still-precarious world and to the related greatness and vulnerability of our nation. We were too preoccupied with our busy little lives to grasp our creeping moral decline, epitomized by the sexual transgressions and lies of Bill Clinton.
Thanks to 9/11, we have lost our innocence and awakened to our national magnificence and the related threats we face from bad people who hate and envy our freedom and prosperity. United We Stand: we have transcended old divisions in shared allegiance to the "war on terrorism" - a new crusade against a new semi-permanent Evil Other that is the true replacement for Cold War predecessors in Moscow and Beijing. We have been morally, politically, and spiritually toughened, unified, and regenerated by violence: our own and that of our "freedom"-hating enemies.
How curious, then, to pick up the "Metro" section of a recent (August 6th) issue of my leading local newspaper - The Chicago Tribune. The front page contains a photograph of fifteen well-dressed white people relaxing in a plush and very predominantly Caucasian North Side neighborhood (Lincoln Park). They are positioned to permit a photographer to re-create George Seurat's late 19th century painting, titled "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte."
It's a perfect image of bourgeois calm and oblivious, self-satisfied, imperial repose. The photograph, the Tribune reports, will be used for a "recruitment poster" by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which does not seem terribly interested in attracting student's from the city and metropolitan area's large African-American population.
Things are a bit more stressful in another, blacker part of town. Further down on the same page of the same section, we can read the results of a recent research report on 1,587 African-Americans living in the decrepit Ida B. Wells housing project on the city's South Side. More than half of the households there have incomes less than $5,000. Less than a fourth of the heads of those households are employed. According to the Urban Institute, 1,000 people living at Wells may end up homeless as a result of the city's imminent demolition of the project. There's an endemic shortage, the Institute notes, of affordable housing for the project's residents and indeed for poor people throughout the city. Only a small number of the displaced will qualify to live in the "mixed income" dwellings the city will build where the facility used to sit. This is terrible, but it's an old story. Since the early- and mid-90s, public authorities have been demolishing public housing projects with only minimal attention to the needs and limited resources of very predominantly black public housing residents. The Chicago version is called the "Chicago Housing Authority Transformation Plan," a local monument to the market worshipping, privilege -friendly philosophy of global corporate neo-liberalism. Pushing disadvantaged inner-city residents and the idea of social justice to the remote margins of public concern, that philosophy holds that markets make the best decisions, that social action to improve your situation is self-defeating and silly, and that the best and only way to succeed in life is as a sovereign individual consumer and investor in a "free market society." Its triumph was proclaimed "inevitable" ("there is no alternative") by leading architects of American policy and opinion long before lunatics from a distant US-protected oil sheikdom turned flying gasoline-filled symbols and agents of petroleum-addicted corporate globalization into weapons of mass destruction.
As researchers and activists pointed out long before the jetliner attacks "changed everything," the available stock of such housing in Chicago is insufficient to absorb the displaced public housing population. That population is "free" to be homeless, thanks to the working of economic forces that carry social costs of secondary concern to local policymakers. Those policymakers, including the Mayor, are beholden to commercial and real estate property developers seeking to remove poor black inner city residents from choice urban investment locations. Those locations are slated for predominantly white professionals, who want to live and shop in proximity to their offices in downtown Chicago, a leading headquarters for heavily state-subsidized and global corporations like the Boeing Corporation, which equips such marvelous adventures in democratic free-market progress as the terrorist occupation of Palestine (1948 to the present) and the bombings of Baghdad (both pre- and post-9/11) and (pre-9/11) Belgrade.
Another story on the exact same Tribune page also indicates that some situations remain normal in the post-September era. It notes that seven inmates, mostly black, were recently beaten with pool cues by guards at the city's giant Cook County Jail. How pre-9/11: this is the third such high-profile incident reported in the last four years at Cook County. The latest revelations come just days after Cook County States' Attorney Richard Devine - notorious in the black community for his habit of putting innocent African-Americans on death row (Alice Kim, "We Want Justice for the Death Row 10," Socialist Worker Online at http://www.socialistworker.org/2001/379/379_02_ DeathRow10.shtml) - announced that he would not file charges in connection with the beating of five shackled Cook County inmates in July 2000. Meanwhile, federal investigators are conducting a civil-rights violation investigation into an alleged mass beating involving 40 guards at the same jail in 1999.
Last July, the Chicago public was momentarily shocked - these things pass, as the media moves on - to learn of a terrible accident on Interstate 57, south of Chicago. Several blacks and Hispanics were critically injured and two died when a van rolled over while carrying 18 Chicagoans to visit loved ones warehoused in racially disparate mass penitentiaries located in the southern part of Illinois. Terrible, but not new: on January 26th of 2001, almost 9 months before "everything changed," a Salvation Army van carrying eleven people on Interstate 55 south of Chicago collided with a tractor-trailer, killing all ten of the van's passengers and its driver. Ten of the dead were Black and one was Hispanic. The van was part of a regular service that took people from Chicago's predominantly black West Side to visit relatives and mates doing time in state prison.
After both crashes, nobody in the local media or politics had much to say much about the relationship between the victims' race and the nature of the van's destination. There were no connections made between the tragedy and the state's policy decision to dramatically increase the number of prisoners in Illinois - mostly black and from the Chicago area - from 27,000 in 1990 to nearly 47,000 in 2000 (even as crime fell) and its related building of 11 new mass correctional facilities in Illinois during the same period massive job-programs for de-industrialized downstate whites that are placed at increasingly vast distances from the "offenders'" home communities (See Paul Street, The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation [Chicago: Chicago Urban League, October 2002], available online at www.cul-chicago.org).
Speaking of jobs, an excellent recent front-page article in the Tribune notes that mass lay-offs enacted during the curiously "jobless" Bush "recovery" have hit Chicago's black population especially hard. Blacks "feel frozen out of the work world," as local activist Eddie Read told the Tribune. The feeling among black workers and job applicants, the paper explains, is very different from the late 1990s, when increased labor demand significantly cut black unemployment, even among lesser-skilled inner city workers. It is worth noting, however, that the black unemployment rate (18.2 percent) was more than four times higher than the white unemployment rate (less than 5 percent) even at the peak of the "Clinton boom" - which "lifted more yachts than rowboats" as the Tribune noted last year. Also meriting mention is the fact that Chicago area job growth in the booming 90s was dramatically higher in white communities than in black communities (see The Color of Job Growth , available online at www.cul-chicago.org). Here we are dealing with continuities that go back much further than 9/11. They reach back further than the Great Depression, when blacks were the "last hired and first hired" for neither the first nor the last in American history.
To more directly sense the rich continuities of racial homeland inequality in Chicago before and after "everything changed," you don't need to read newspapers or project studies. You can drive west out of the city's downtown on Madison Avenue, past the stadium that Michael Jordan built (the United Center) and into the heart of desperately impoverished West Side neighborhoods like North Lawndale and West and East Garfield. A large number of teen and younger adult males gather on street corners. Most of them are part of the city's large and very disproportionately black concentration - estimated at 97,000 strong in 2001 by the Center for Labor Market Studies (Northeastern University) - of "disconnected youth," 16- to 24-years olds who are both out of school and out of work. Many of them are clearly enrolled in gang organizations and engaged in the narcotics trade. Many of them have already served or will soon serve as raw material for the aforementioned "downstate" prison industry. Older unemployed males, many unrecorded in the nation's official unemployment statistics (their "discouraged" status means they are no longer actively participating in the labor force), congregate around liquor stores and missions. The endemic stress, disappointment, and danger of inner-city life is etched on their faces.
Equally evident is the relative of absence of retail facilities, services, and institutions that are standard in richer, whiter neighborhoods: full-service modern grocery stores, drugstores, bookstores, restaurants, doctors, dentists, lawyers, dry-cleaners, banks, personal investment and family insurance stores, boutiques, coffee shops, and much more. Business and homes are visibly dilapidated, with many of the former relying on hand-painted signs to advertise their wares. Local business owners, many of whom are Arab, protect their enterprises from burglary with bars and gated shutters. Pawnshops and barebones storefront churches are widely visible, as are liquor stores and currency exchanges advertising super-exploitive Payday loans. Taxicabs are scarce and those that do serve the neighborhoods are generally low-budget, fly-by-night "jitney" firms.
The small number of whites seen in these neighborhoods and their South Side counterparts are males working in traditional working-class "jobs that pay" - street and sewer repair, construction trades, firemen, and the like - that appear to be unavailable to black males.
Police cars cruise warily, their occupants donning bullet-proof vests deemed necessary in waging the war on drugs in neighborhoods where people with felony records outnumber legitimate jobs.
This is pretty much how these neighborhoods looked and felt before 9/11. Truth be told, they look a lot like they did in the 1960s, even before the riots that are supposed to have taken away their vitality, actually stolen by a process of disinvestment that was already well underway.
How have things changed since 9/11 in these neighborhoods? Simply put, the core continuities of human suffering and hopelessness have been accelerated. Things have gotten worse at a quickened pace, thanks in large part to the racially disparate joblessness of the current recovery. Also part of the unpleasant equation is 9/11 itself, or more accurately the official, right-led public and media response to the terror attacks. September 11th gave the radical-right Bush junta - falsely labeled conservative - a precious opportunity to divert public attention away from the causes and consequences of urban inequality, to starve, cripple, and pre-empt programs that might alleviate the suffering caused by racism and related socioeconomic inequality, and to conflate dissent with treason. These masters of war at home and abroad have seized on the opportunity with all deliberate speed, consistent with the timeworn conduct of concentrated power, before and since "everything changed." Empire abroad has always been and remains both reflection and agent of inequality and repression at home.
Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His book Empire Abroad, Inequality at Home: Essays on America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm Publishers) will be available next year. This article appeared in ZNET (www.zmag.org/weluser.htm).