In Baltimore and Across the Country, Black Faces in High Places Haven’t Helped Average Black People

This year marks the 50th anniversary of many of the most significant events of the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s. Two years ago, we celebrated the March on Washington; last year we recognized the 1964 Civil Rights Act that ended Jim Crow apartheid in the South. This year, we have already seen commemorations of the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and summer’s end will see the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles. Of course, the country had seen rebellions in Rochester, New York, Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey, to a name a few cities, in 1964, but up to that point, Watts was unprecedented in its scale, damage, deaths and sheer ferocity in the summer of 1965. The uprising in South Central Los Angeles represented a stark conclusion to the nonviolent phase of the movement.

The acrid plumes of smoke that hang over the city of Baltimore are a stark reminder of the recent past of the 1960s. But the riots over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray seen in Baltimore over the past few days aren’t simply a replay of events that took place 50 years ago. The inequities that ignited hundreds of American cities in the 1960s still exist and have, in fact, deepened over the last half-century. Then as now, pervasive police violence and harassment defines the humiliation and powerlessness of life for millions of working-class and poor African Americans.

But what makes the Baltimore uprising different from an earlier era is that the vicious attacks on African Americans have unfolded at a time of unprecedented Black political power.

Fewer than 40 miles from Baltimore, in the nation’s capitol, resides the nation’s first African-American president. There are 43 Black members of Congress and two Senators—the highest number of Black Congress members in American history. And just as the West Side of Baltimore was erupting against the police killing of Freddie Gray, Loretta Lynch became the first Black woman appointed as Attorney General.

This isn’t only a national phenomenon; it’s also reflected in local politics. In Baltimore, African Americans control virtually the entire political apparatus. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts have been the most prominent faces of political power in Baltimore over the last several weeks. But Baltimore’s City Council has 15 members, and a majority, eight, are African American, including its president. The superintendent of the public schools and the entire board of the city’s housing commission are African American. Across the United States, thousands of Black elected officials are governing many of the nation’s cities and suburbs.

In this respect, the events in Baltimore are dissimilar from what happened in Ferguson, Missouri last summer. There, the small suburb just north of Saint Louis had a majority Black population largely governed by a white suburban government, and the lack of Black political power and representation became a narrative thread in popular explanations for what went wrong. Electing African Americans into political office in Ferguson thus became a focal point for many local and national activists.

But if the murder of Mike Brown and the rebellion in Ferguson was reminiscent of the old Jim Crow, then the murder of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore uprising is symbolic of the new Black power.

In fact, pursuit of Black electoral power became one of the principal strategies that emerged from the Black Power era. At the end of the 1960s, the calls for “community control” over the cities that Black people lived in became louder. Such calls made sense:  the “Great Migration” brought millions of African Americans into the nation’s cities and helped to elevate Black concerns into political discussion (though they were rarely acted upon) and transformed many metropolitan demographics as Blacks moved in and whites moved out.

White political control of increasingly Black cities exacerbated existing tensions over those cities’ conditions. In cities like Chicago, the patronage machine could draw in some Black participation, but that hardly resembled any real Black political or economic control of the city’s infrastructure. The destruction and instability caused by urban rebellions over the course of the decade advanced the idea among elites that perhaps more Black control and ownership within the cities might help to calm the rebellious Black population.

Today, we have more Black elected officials in the United States than at any point in American history. Yet for the vast majority of Black people, life has changed very little. Black elected officials have largely governed in the same way as their white counterparts, reflecting all of the racism, corruption and policies favoring the wealthy seen throughout mainstream politics.

Baltimore is a telltale example. Mayor Rawlings-Blake may be African American, but under her leadership, large swaths of Black Baltimore have remained poor, unemployed and perpetually harassed and abused by the police. In the last four years alone, more than 100 people have won civil suits against police brutality. During Rawlings-Blake’s tenure, the city has been forced to pay $5.7 million to settle civil suits regarding police misconduct and brutality—an amount that does not include the $5.8 million Baltimore has paid to defend police who have abused the Black public.

Despite the lawlessness of the Baltimore Police Department, the mayor reserved her harshest comments for those involved in the uprising, describing them as “criminals” and “thugs.” For anyone remotely aware of Rawlings-Blake’s mayoral history, her lashing out at the victims of police corruption and brutality would not have been surprising.

Even though unwarranted police attacks had been widely documented and adjudicated, a month prior to the unrest in Baltimore, the mayor blamed Black men for violence in Baltimore. Invoking her inner Rudy Giuliani, Rawlings-Blake said of violence in the city, “Too many of us in the black community have become complacent about black-on-black crime. …While many of us are willing to march and protest and become active in the face of police misconduct, many of us turn a blind eye when it’s us killing us.”

Ignoring the long history of racism and the epidemic of police terrorism in shaping Black life in Baltimore, the mayor, as has become typical of the Black political elite, blamed the problems of the city on the African Americans who live there.

The major difference between life in cities like Baltimore today and 50 years ago is not only the existence of a Black political stratum that governs and manages much of Black America, but also the ways this powerful Black political class helps to deflect a serious interrogation of structural inequality and institutional racism. Instead, leaders from that political class resurrect old and convenient narratives that indict Black families and culture as the central explanation for persistent racial inequality.

To maintain legitimacy within the Democratic Party, which most of these Black politicians consider home, they toe the party line that emphasizes personal responsibility and rejects raising taxes to fund desperately needed social programs. And Black elected officials either create or widen the space for whites to interrogate the moral habits of ordinary Black people. When President Obama, Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Attorney General Lynch refer to Black protestors as “thugs” and “criminals,” white Republicans do not have to.

Black elected officials often invoke a sense of racial solidarity, familiarity and insight into the lives of the Black poor and working class—only to then chastise or blame ordinary African Americans for deteriorating conditions in their own neighborhoods.

This is not just a product of contempt for the Black poor, but also the result of the pressures of governing big cities in an age of austerity. Cities have been thrust into competition with each other to attract capital, resulting in a race to the bottom to cut taxes and essentially shove out those in need of social services. Focusing on individual failure and lapsed morality (rather than structural inequities) justifies the budget cuts and shrinking of the public sphere that these Black political elites are charged with carrying out. What African Americans in cities around the country need, according to this narrative, is personal transformation, not expanded social services.

Black political operatives operate in the same terrain as their white competitors. They compete to stay in the good graces of wealthy donors while maximizing political connections to bolster their campaign war chests. They, too, rely on aggressive policing to make up for the social problems created when poverty, gutted social services and no prospects for success in American society converge and eventually combust.

The uprising in Baltimore has crystalized the deepening political and class divide in Black America. This is a new development in the Black freedom struggle that historically has been united across class lines to fight racism. From the White House to City Halls across the country, the growth and maturation of the Black political class has firmly placed them in a position of managing the crises that continue to unfold in Black neighborhoods across the country. Black political operatives have no better solutions for ordinary African Americans than any other elected officials. In Ferguson and now in Baltimore, it’s the movement in the streets that is bringing global attention to the racism and inequality that still thrives in American society—not Black faces in high places.


About the Aurthor

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a writer, public speaker and activist living in Philadelphia. She writes on Black politics, housing inequality and issues of race and class in the United States. She is the author of the forthcoming From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, published by Haymarket Books in January 2016. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter: @KeeangaYamahtta.


How Flint, Ferguson and Baltimore are all connected

Flint, Ferguson, New Orleans and Baltimore — cities now inseparable from the national news stories centered there — became calamities for separate reasons. One was a natural disaster (made worse by human error), another a wholly man-made crisis. The two others began with police violence, but in disparate settings: the newly impoverished suburbs and the long-distraught inner city. Flint and New Orleans were failures of infrastructure, Baltimore and Ferguson a collapse of human relationships.

“On one level,” says Henry Louis Taylor, “they all look and appear to be very, very different.” But, argues the professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo, it’s about time we begin to talk about them in the same breath. “These are places that are left behind, forgotten,” he says. “They’re places we’ve gotten very good at shielding from view.”

Together, he argues that these cities — and recent events there — point to the endurance in the United States of structural racism, of minorities disproportionately left vulnerable to the economy or the environment, of communities abandoned by taxpayer dollars, public interest and government oversight.

[Flint’s water crisis reveals government failures at every level]

“Flint is what I call ‘a throwaway city,’ ” Taylor says, to take one example. “It was left by the big industries. It was left on its own, by the state, by taxpayers, by the county.”

And then such places must strike terrible financial bargains — ticketing residents in Ferguson to generate money,downgrading the water supply in Flint to cut costs. The same shortage of funding also affects schools. The quality of schools alters children’s futures. Those children remain in poverty as adults. And their own families live with the environmental costs of decades-old decisions on where to put highways, factories and power plants.

These kinds of places are frequently home to minorities. And they often exist, too, within larger regions that do have resources — but where the neighborshave been quite ingenious in making sure they don’t have to share them.

“Across the board, when we start to probe deep into these forgotten places, we start to see a trend emerge,” Taylor says. “We start to see the different ways in which racism impacts African Americans, and we also see the different ways where it impacts the places where they live.”

[What your first-grade life says about the rest of it]

In the heat of an unfolding news event, it appears as if we’re looking at something else, or something smaller — a problem of EPA leadership, or aging pipes, or bad apples among police officers.

“We’ll see police brutality in Ferguson, and we’ll see police brutality in Baltimore, or Cleveland, but we’re confused about the places,” Taylor says. “Well in Ferguson, you had whites in control. But in Baltimore, you had blacks in control, so maybe that’s not racism, maybe that’s something else. We’re not sure exactly what we’re seeing. Or you see Flint, and people are really confused, because we don’t know what’s going on. Maybe those were just a bunch of bad decisions people made, and it doesn’t have anything to do with race.”

What we should be seeing, he suggests, are links between all of these events and the larger structures that contributed to them.

Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream

On Monday, January 18, 2016, the pundits and talking heads will be telling us about Martin Luther King’s Dream and what he would think about the United States today.

A careful re-reading of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and his 1968 book, Where Do We Go from Here, suggests that King would not be happy with the “State of the Union” or with Obama’s presidency.

In “I have a Dream,” King told us about his vision for an “uncreated” future America, while in Where Do We Go From Here, he carefully outlined that vision and the challenges we would face getting there.

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King argued that Selma and the Voting Rights Act were nothing more than Phase One in the larger Black Liberation Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was about the struggle to remove the legal obstacles that constrained, circumscribed and limited the struggle for the larger freedoms.

The Second Phase of the Black Liberation Movement would be about the fight to realize in practice these “larger freedoms.”

When King mentioned the “quicksands of racial injustice,” he was talking about the system of structural racism, which perpetually denies blacks access to good schools, high quality housing and neighborhoods and the resources and opportunities they need to build a good life for themselves and their families.

This form of systemic structural racism operated within and across multiple socioeconomic domains: education, health, governance, criminal justice, labor and housing markets, and the like.

Thus, in the fight for the larger freedoms, blacks must bring to the forefront the battle for a high quality education, jobs with a livable wage or a guaranteed livable income;

they must struggle for affordable, high quality housing that is embedded in safe, secure and visually appealing neighborhoods which function as highly efficient social organizations; and they must contest for a equitable health care system anchored in wellness and prevention.

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These are the larger freedoms.

In King’s Dream, the government must either provide blacks with jobs with a livable wage, or guarantee them a livable income. It is not complicated. The government must step in when the private sector cannot produce enough jobs to put people to work. Here, we are talking about jobs not doles.

In King’s Dream, blacks not must be guaranteed access to the nation’s critical socioeconomic domains, but also these domains must be fundamentally altered. For example, the education system as currently organized will not provide blacks with a high quality education. So, it must be changed. The housing system cannot produce an adequate supply of high quality, affordable housing for low-income groups. So, it must be changed.

In King’s Dream, then, access to the critical “socioeconomic domains” and “systems change” are fused together to form a socioeconomic justice bottom line.

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King had this “socioeconomic justice” bottom line in mind when he said:

“When we allow [the larger] freedom to ring- when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestant and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, we are free at last.”

For these larger freedoms to ring across American, the nation must be recreated so that it can provide every person, from across the color spectrum, with the best that humanity and technology have to offer.

This is the type of American King imagined when he said, “I have a dream.”


Neighborhoods Matter


In the United States, we are conditioned to view racism through individual dispositions, situational frameworks and/or the practices of specific institutions. Rarely, if ever, do we see the association between the day-to-day struggles of working class blacks and the larger structures of racism.  This harsh, down-on-the-ground reality is hidden from view by the cultural blinders of individualism, personal responsibility, and socioeconomic mobility.  The political scientists, Clarissa Hayward and Todd Swanstrom call the veiled nature of racism thick injustice; and this “thickness” makes the status quo difficult to change because its roots of injustice are deep and densely concentrated, as well as opaque, relatively intractable, and imbricated with physical space. This blog lifts the veil to show how the struggle of low-income blacks to make-ends-meet is constrained and circumscribed by the structural forces operating in underdeveloped neighborhoods.

In this messy world where multiple domains of structural racism intersect, low-income blacks use a present-orientated, cost-benefit approach to thinking, decision-making and problem-solving that often jeopardizes their ability to meet more distant, long-term challenges.  Understanding the structural dimensions of life in underdeveloped neighborhoods, and how they affect the rhythms of black life and decision-making is a pre-requisite to forging participatory strategies to organize and transform these places into developed communities of opportunity.  To gain insight into this issue, this blog examines the interaction among labor and housing markets in the struggle of blacks to make-ends-meet in Buffalo’s underdeveloped neighborhoods.

The Theoretical Framework

I use a structural racism model to unveil these hidden, neighborhood-scaled dimensions of racism. Structural racism refers to a racialized system of socioeconomic stratification that produces and reproduces inequity and inequality among blacks, while simultaneously producing privilege and advantage among whites.  The system consists of individuals and institutions, and their interaction within and across the principal American socioeconomic opportunity domains (SEO): education, labor, housing, health, governance, judicial, and the like.  Structural racism is embedded in larger cultural and economic dimensions that normalizes and connects racism to an index of attitudes, values, behaviors and social norms rooted in American society and that creates a binary world of poverty and non-poverty. The cultural dimension frames the way we think and interpret black life and culture, and the neighborhoods and communities in which African Americans reside, while the economic dimension structures the socioeconomic possibilities and constructs a Horatio Alger fantasy of fluid upward socioeconomic mobility, which makes it possible for people to move out of poverty and up the socioeconomic ladder.

In the structural racism model, individuals operate as players, both inside and outside of the institutional framework, without having to be conscious of their racism in order to produce racist outcomes.  The structural racism model, unlike the individual racism paradigm, does not obsess over intentionally, because the undesirability of racial outcomes is not dependent on intentionality.  The systemic, structural dimension of racism insures that undesirable racial outcomes are spawned both by intentional and unintentional activities. This happens because racism is implanted in a racialized system of socioeconomic stratification that continually produces black inequity and inequality regardless of intentions.  This reality creates a society where there can be racism without racists.

Normally, we think of racism in terms of a singular, linear causation that occurs at a particular moment of time and within a specific domain.  However, structural racism views racism as resulting from cumulative causes that stem from relationships and processes that operate within and across multiple SCO domains, institutional settings and situational scenarios, as well as across time and space.  So, for example, actions in the educational domain effects labor market dynamics, which in turn impacts housing markets and neighborhood conditions. Government decisions and public policies dictates how the State responds to these distressful conditions found in underdeveloped conditions.

The situational dimension of structural racism is thus critical to understanding how racism produces the neighborhood-scaled challenges faced by blacks. Spatially speaking, structural racism produces racially-based situational scenarios that take on a life of their own once animated. In underdeveloped neighborhoods, racism spawns manifold challenges that block access to SEOs by African Americans.  These situational scenarios are framed by powerful interactive links among the past, present, and future. Past injustices set the stage for the current challenges facing African Americans, which, If not resolved, will become even more problematic in the future.

Manning Marable elaborated on this issue in his classic, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America. In this book, he argues that the chronic underdevelopment of black neighborhoods is a requirement for both the development of capitalism, and for the prosperity and privilege of elite whites.  This suggests that housing, dilapidated neighborhoods, inadequate schooling, ineffective institutions, low-wages, joblessness, and black-on-black violence are part of larger “processes of underdevelopment historically generated and presently reinforced by the exploitative U.S. capitalist economy and its relatively autonomous racist and sexist operations.”

The Cumulative Effects of Racism:  A Systems Model of Structural Racism

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Housing Market Dynamics: Finding a Place to Live

In the United States, blackness correlates with underdeveloped neighborhoods, which are located on the most undesirable residential lands in the urban metropolis.  Knowing why working class blacks are overrepresented in these types of neighborhoods is the start point in understanding how structural racism differentially effects the life chances and outcomes of blacks and whites.   In Greater Buffalo, and elsewhere, finding a place to live is an income driven process.   In the urban metropolis, the residential environment is stratified one that is based on the hierarchal, spatial ordering of neighborhoods.   In this system, preference is mediated by income. Where you want to live is refracted by where you can afford to live.  This incomebased preference system of residential location causes blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians to be unevenly distributed across urban space.  Blacks, for example, constitute 14% of the Erie County population, but 78% of them live in the central city. Latinos comprise only 5% of the country population, but 60% of them live in the central city. Asians comprise 3% of the population, but 30% of them are located in the central city.  By contrast, whites comprise 81% of the county’s population, but only 18% of them live in the city.  Asians and two or more races while heavily concentrated in the core are not overrepresented.  In Erie County, on the other hand, blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in the central city, while whites are overrepresented in the suburban hinterland.

Racial and Ethnic Distribution of the Erie County Population

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Income-based preference painted a similar picture of residential location in Buffalo. In the city, middle- to high-income whites are overrepresented on the West Side and North Buffalo, while blacks are overrepresented on the East Side. The Latino population is overrepresented in the far-West Side.  Within this situational scenario, blacks, Latinos and whites live in communities with fundamentally different landscapes. Historically, for example, the East Side was Buffalo’s economic engine. This geography was filled with hundreds of big and small manufacturing plants that employed thousands of workers.  When the plants closed and the workers moved to other parts of the suburbs, their departure led to abandoned houses and buildings.  Added to this equation was institutional expansion, road widening, and interstate highway connector projects that spawned demolition, displacement, and the devaluation of property.  Today, the East Side has a complex landscape.  It is both the primary site of blight and ground zero for Buffalo’s economic renaissance.

On the far West Side, where the Latino population is concentrated, a similar landscape exists.  This residential site is the location of one of the city’s old industrial zones, along with the interstate highway and Peace Bridge, where hundreds of cars traverse daily. Meanwhile, the West Side and North Buffalo are sites of residential development for the middle class and elites, while South Buffalo is still home of the higher paid white workers and lower middle-class professionals. These primarily white communities were the sites of upscale residential development, park and boulevard development.

Historical Location of Manufacturing Plants

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Source: Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority Report, 1934

From this portrait, we can conclude that higher income whites live in the best housing and neighborhoods, while lower-income blacks and Latinos live in the worst housing and neighborhood.  Not only this, but higher income groups, especially in the suburbs, created –wittingly or unwittingly – barriers that keep lower income groups from living in their communities, or that minimize their presence in those places.  In the metropolis, then, the cost of housing, combined with preference, is the determinant of where most people live in the metropolis.

The Neighborhood Situational Scenario: Who Owns that House with the Broken Window?

Finding a place live in the urban metropolis is hugely important because neighborhoods matter in the lives of people.  Neighborhoods are never passive backdrops to everyday life and culture.  Rather, they are catalytic platforms that powerfully shape residents access to social, political, and economic opportunities and resources or that block or hamper access to these opportunities. In developed neighborhoods, for example, there are high-performing schools, grocery stores with affordable fresh produce, growing employment opportunities, high-quality childcare, state-of-the-art health care facilities, and opportunities for social networking critical to civic engagement and job advancement. On the flipside, in underdeveloped neighborhoods we find disinvestment, poor service delivery, underperforming schools, inadequate rental housing units, rundown physical environments, no grocery stores, recreational centers, or strong mediating organizations and institutions to help residents successfully grapple with a myriad of socioeconomic problems.  These neighborhoods do not function as a highly effective social organization because they lack the resources and mediating organizations and institutions needed to help residents solve problems and successfully meet developmental challenges. Consequently, in these underdeveloped places, people are thus pretty much on their own.

The Underdeveloped Neighborhood

Life in these underdeveloped neighborhoods is problematized by the low-incomes of residents. The U.S. is a commodity-based consumer society in which most goods and services must be purchased, and the quality of these commodities are based on cost.   The positionality of blacks in the labor market not only determines where in the metropolis they will live, but also it dictate how they fare in these underdeveloped neighborhoods.  The reason is that the type of work correlates the income level. For analytical purposes, I divided the Buffalo City’s income structure into high, middle and low-income. Then, using the HUD 2015 Income Guidelines for a family of two, I broke the low-income sector into three sub-categories: low incomes ($43,300); very-low ($27,100) and extremely-low ($16,250).  In Buffalo, the 2013 median household income for blacks was $23,000 and $19,000 for Latinos, while the poverty rate was 39% for blacks and 50% for Latinos.

These figures suggest that most blacks and Latinos are situated in the very-low   income cohort, with a significant number falling into the extremely low-income category.  Thus, down on the ground, in underdeveloped neighborhoods, blacks and Latinos live on the economic edge; and this positionality refracts their worldview, problem-solving and decision-making.

Problem-Solving and Decision-Making in Underdeveloped Neighborhoods

In this setting, I argue that most blacks use a cost-benefit approach to decision-making and problem-solving, which is based on a present, rather than a future orientation.  This viewpoint is more complicated than people simply refusing to defer gratification, or folks just making bad decisions, or individuals having reductions in their cognitive resources.  Instead, this approach evolves from living in a society where low income blacks and Latinos typically have only one of three choices:  bad, very bad, and really mucked-up.

 Options for Low-Income Blacks

                                 Bad                                                            Very Bad                                              Really Mucked Up

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Source: Google Images

Down on the ground, based on their experiences in underdeveloped neighborhoods, blacks construct a logic model to guide their decision-making and problem-solving.  To gain deeper insight into the everyday conditions that spawns this type of thinking and problem-solving, I want to explore several aspects of everyday life starting with the housing situation.

The Low-income Housing Situation

Low-incomes cause most blacks and Latinos to live in rental housing units that are located in underdeveloped neighborhoods.  These rental units create two interrelated problems for blacks.  First, most of these units are poorly maintained.  The reason is an outcome of the interaction between the owner’s quest to maximize profits and the calculus of the housing market.  In the low-income housing market, to profit from their rental units, property owners must charge rents that exceed the cost of maintenance, upgrades, operations, utilities, fees and property taxes.  If the housing calculus does not work, and the rentals does not exceed these costs, property owners will cut back on expenses until they hit the bottom line, where profits can be made.

To reduce expenses, the owner is likely to force renters to pay utility costs, defer maintenance and eliminate upgrades altogether. Additionally, owners will minimize lawn care, the extermination of vermin, exterior painting and eliminate landscaping altogether. These cutbacks will affect the rental property in multiple ways. For example, by not fixing broken windows and drafty doors, and by failing to install energy efficient appliances, windows, light bulbs, and furnaces, the cost of utilities will skyrocket, thereby increasing the renter’s housing cost burden.  Then, when repairs are made, owners will use cheap labor and purchase inexpensive building materials and supplies. The result is shoddy work and things always breaking.  The outcome of this profit-making quest is the production of housing units in poor condition with a disheartening visual image.

The second problem is the high cost of housing.  Most low-income rental units are expensive, as well as in poor condition.  According to HUD, affordable housing should cost renters no more than 30% of their income.  However, in Buffalo, most low-income black spend from 40% to 49% of their income on housing, with a critical mass paying 50% and more.  For blacks, then, the high cost of housing distorts their budgets and problematizes the challenge of making ends meet.  The failure of property owners to make their rental units energy efficient dramatically increases the cost of utilities and pushes the housing cost burden to the extreme.  High utility cost is a big part of the problem.  In places with harsh winters, like Buffalo, the utility costs will increase significantly thereby increasing the renter’s housing cost burden. To offset these increased costs, during the winter months, some families will sequester themselves in the kitchen, using their stoves for heating, and/or resorting to the use of space heaters to keep warm. These space heaters, I might add, are dangerous.  According to the Harvard University Environmental Health & Safety group, space heaters cause 25,000 home fires a year, and 6,000 emergency room visits.

The larger issue is the high cost of housing limits the money blacks have to spend on other critical budgetary items, including food, transportation, medicine, clothes, telephone, and the internet.  The high cost of housing exacerbates the low-income problem by making money even scarcer.  Consequently, among low-income blacks, the struggle to make ends meet is very difficult. To concretize this issue, I have constructed a hypothetical budget outline for a two-family household.  In this scenario, the family has a median household income of $23,000, with a monthly take-home pay of about $1,600.    If 50% of the family’s income is spent on housing, the monthly housing cost burden will be about $800, leaving another $800 to pay for the remaining expenses, including necessities such as food, transportation and medicine.

Making ends meet is going to be a challenge in this household, especially if there is a child.  The family will be chronically faced with a myriad of decisions about how to stretch their dollars.   The tight budget will keep them from participating in many activities and make life frustrating and stressful. Of course, there are programs like the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) to help pay for utilities. Even so, high utilities bills, threatened shutoffs, and applying for subsidies create stressors that contribute to a family’s already heavy allostatic load.  This concept – allostatic load—refers to the chronic and toxic stress under which many African Americans live.

The high cost of housing is also responsibility for forcing many families to move.  Forced mobility is a stealth problem among many low-income blacks and Latinos.   Yet, under this shroud, many families move frequently because of evictions, the inability to pay rent, or because of deplorable living conditions. The high transiency rate among school age children is one indicator of this forced mobility.  For example, there are a number of Buffalo inner-city schools where the transiency rate is more than 30%, and in some instances, more than half the students move in and out of a school during the academic year.  I do not have good data on where these families move, but I suspect that most of them will resettle in the same neighborhood or in a nearby community.  However, regardless of where these families go, in all likelihood, they will living in yet another unstable residential environment.

Food Insecurity and Transportation

The argument is that housing costs are a disruptive and destabilizing force that spawns other financial challenges for low-income blacks and Latinos.  To illustrate this point, I want to highlight food and transportation expenses. Over the past few years, I held focus groups on these two issues with more than 300 low-income blacks and Latinos across Buffalo.  In terms of food, the consensus among the informants is the quest to buy healthy, affordable food is made difficult by the absence of grocery stores in their own neighborhoods and by the lack of high quality supermarkets in the city.

These informants say the best and cheapest food is found in the suburbs, which brings the question of transportation to the forefront.  Getting to suburban grocery stores is a challenge for people without automobiles.   One resident put it this way, “Dr. Taylor, bags and buses don’t mix, especially if you have children.”   So, to get to the supermarket, residents without a car must take a cab, or bum a ride with a friend, or they may have to shop at a central city grocery store.   Either way, the cost of transportation is going to be a surcharge on their food bill.   Once they get to the supermarket, their scare funds creates another problem, “what can I afford to buy?”  The informants say that “price,” not nutritional value, is the prime determinant of what they buy.  Of course, they try to strike a balance among price, nutritional value, and preference, but price is always going to overrule other considerations.


I want to return to the transportation issue, which is aggravated by the reality that black communities are food and service deserts.  The result is that residents must leave their neighborhoods to obtain virtually all the goods and services they require.  This makes life difficult.  The various trips are time consuming ones, which often require making multiple bus stops, including transferring from the bus to the train.  In the winter, waiting for buses can be a brutal experience, especially when there is no shelter at the bus stop.  In this situational scenario, residents are constantly “bumming” rides from their friends.  They must find a ride to and from their destination.  Also, in many instance, this requires getting someone to stay with the children or adult for whom they are primary care giver.   Regardless of the process, bumming a ride is always a complicated affair that requires careful planning.

Some low-income residents, of course, own a car; but many of these automobiles are unreliable ones that are costly to maintain. For example, unexpected repairs, traffic tickets, gasoline, and insurance will add significantly to the drama of making ends meet.  The result is that residents in underdeveloped neighborhoods prioritize and carefully plan their trips.  Even so, the transportation issue produces another layer of precarity in their lives.  For example, there are times when a resident needs to go somewhere, but he or she simply does not have enough money to take a bus or cab, and/or cannot bum a ride. So, the trip is canceled.


In closing, the narrative about the struggles of low-income blacks and Latinos remind me of the opening lines of Langston Hughes’ poem, Mother to Son, “Well, son, I’ll tell you; life to me ain’t been no crystal stair.”  Life is hard, but blacks and Latinos persist in their quest to build a better life for themselves and their families.

In the urban metropolis, labor market dynamics causes most African Americans to live in underdeveloped neighborhoods, where they are forced to find lodging in low-income housing units, where the housing cost burden makes the unit unaffordable.  The high cost of housing limits the money these low-income residents have to spend on other necessities, such as food, transportation, medicine and the like.  Thus, the struggle to make ends meet is a chronic battle, while the ability to negotiate the urban environment without reliable transportation changes the time-space for them.  Hence, “I don’t have enough time” is a common refrain in underdeveloped communities.   In setting, many blacks adopt a present-orientated, cost-benefit approach to problem-solving and decision-making.

This logic model evolves out of the structural realities they face daily. This approach to thinking and problem-solving is an effect, not a cause of the challenges they face.  It is reaction to the barriers to socioeconomic opportunities erected by the structures of racism.  Blacks, for example, did not invent the low-income housing problem, nor did they conjure up this neoliberal economy, which is growing low-income jobs, while it is reducing middle-income positions.  These problems are neighborhood-level manifestations of structural racism and they cannot be eliminated without dismantling the structures in in the housing market.  Indeed, the dynamics of the low-income housing market is a prime source of instability in underdeveloped neighborhoods, and solving it must be the first step in developing black communities and bolstering the ability of African American to meet effectively other neighborhood-level challenges.

How We Get Free


On April 12, 1865, the American Civil War officially came to end when the Union Army accepted the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy on the steps of a courthouse in Appomattox, VA. The Union Army, led by two hundred thousand black soldiers, had destroyed the institution of slavery; as a result of their victory, black people were now to be no longer property but citizens of the United States.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866, the first declaration of civil rights in the United States, stated that

citizens of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, shall have the same right, in every State and Territory in the United States . . . to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens.

There was no ambiguity that the war had buried chattel slavery once and for all. Days after the surrender of the Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln rode into Richmond, VA, the former capital of the slaveholders, where he stood upon the stairs of the former Confederate capitol building and told a large gathering crowd of black people days into their freedom,

In reference to you, colored people, let me say God has made you free. Although you have been deprived of your God-given rights by your so-called Masters, you are now as free as I am, and if those that claim to be your superiors do not know that you are free, take the sword and bayonet and teach them that you are  —  for God created all men free, giving to each the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One hundred and fifty years later, on April 12, 2015, at nine in the morning, 217 miles north of the Appomattox courthouse, Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old black man, was arrested by the Baltimore police. His only apparent crime was making eye contact with the police and then running away. Gray was loaded into a van. By the time he emerged forty-five minutes later, his neck had been snapped and 80 percent of his spinal cord severed.

The distance from the end of the Civil War, with the birth of black citizenship and civil rights, to the state-sanctioned beating and torture of Gray constitutes the gap between formal equality before the law and the self-determination and self-possession inherent in actual freedom  —  the right to be free from oppression, the right to make determinations about your life free from duress, coercion, or threat of harm. Freedom in the United States has been elusive, contingent, and fraught with contradictions and unattainable promises  —  for everyone.

Black people were not freed into an American Dream, but into what Malcolm X described as an “American nightmare” of economic inequality and unchecked injustice. The full extent of this inequality was masked by racial terrorism.

One hundred years after Emancipation, African Americans dismantled the last vestiges of legal discrimination with the Civil Rights Movement, but the excitement of the movement quickly faded as American cities combusted with black people who were angry and disillusioned at being locked out of the riches of American society. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans participated in the uprisings in search of resolutions to the problems of lead poisoning, rat infestations, hunger and malnutrition, underemployment, poor schools, and persisting poverty.

Where liberals and radicals often converged was in the demand that blacks should have greater political control over their communities. For liberals, black electoral politics was a sign of political maturity as the movement left the streets for the poll booth, urban governance, and community control. The problem was not “the system;” it was exclusion from access to all that American society had to offer.

Some radicals were also lured by the possibility of self-governance and community control. Indeed, it was a viable strategy, given that much of black life was controlled by white elected officials and white-led institutions. The question remained, however: could the machinery wielded in the oppression of blacks now be retooled in the name of black self-determination?

If freedom had in one era been imagined as inclusion in the mainstream of American society, including access to its political and financial institutions, then the last fifty years have yielded a mixed record. Indeed, since the last gasps of the black insurgency in the 1970s, there are many measures of black accomplishment and achievement in a country where black people were never intended to survive as free people.

Is there no greater symbol of a certain kind of black accomplishment than a black president? For those who consider mastery of American politics and black political representation as the highest expression of inclusion in the mainstream, we are surely in the heyday of American “race relations.” Yet, paradoxically, at a moment when African Americans have achieved what no rational person could have imagined when the Civil War ended, we have simultaneously entered a new period of black protest, black radicalization, and the birth of a new black left.

No one knows what will come of this new political development, but many know the causes of its gestation. For as much success as some African Americans have achieved, 4 million black children live in poverty, 1 million black people are incarcerated, and 240,000 black people lost their homes as a result of the foreclosure crisis  —  resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in black savings.

Never before in American history has a black president presided over the misery of millions of black people, the denial of the most basic standards for health, happiness, and basic humanity. Entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte recalled his last conversation with Martin Luther King Jr, in which King lamented, “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. . . . We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”

The aspiration of black liberation cannot be separated from what happens in the United States as a whole. Black life cannot be transformed while the country burns all around it. The fires consuming the United States are stoked by the widespread alienation of low wage and meaningless work, unaffordable rents, suffocating debt, and the boredom of poverty.

The essence of economic inequality is borne out in a simple fact: there are 400 billionaires in the United States and 45 million people living in poverty. These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. There are 400 American billionaires because there are 45 million people living in poverty. Profit comes at the expense of the living wage.

Corporate executives, university presidents, and capitalists in general are living the good life  —  because so many others are living a life of hardship. The struggle for black liberation, then, is not an abstract idea molded in isolation from the wider phenomenon of economic exploitation and inequality that pervades all of American society; it is intimately bound up with them.

The struggle for black liberation requires going beyond the standard narrative that black people have come a long way but have a long way to go  —  which, of course, says nothing about where it is that we are actually trying to get to. It requires understanding the origins and nature of black oppression and racism more generally. Most importantly, it requires a strategy, some sense of how we get from the current situation to the future.

Perhaps at its most basic level, black liberation implies a world where black people can live in peace, without the constant threat of the social, economic, and political woes of a society that places almost no value on the vast majority of black lives. It would mean living in a world where black lives matter.

While it is true that when black people get free, everyone gets free, black people in America cannot “get free” alone. In that sense, black liberation is bound up with the project of human liberation and social transformation.

The Long Struggle for Black Liberation

In studies of the black freedom struggle, there is a tendency to think of each movement in that struggle as a separate and distinct entity.  While each phase in the struggle for black liberation has its own history, the black struggle for liberation will not be over until the African American people are free.  Today, 350 years after the first slaves landed in Jamestown; 150 years after the Civil War ended, 61 years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation, 50 years after passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, and 47 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., blacks are still receiving an inadequate education, face police violence, high levels of unemployment, low-incomes, poverty and die prematurely.  They are still living in neighborhoods characterized by bad housing, blighted surroundings, food deserts, supportive service swamps, and crime.

Blacks are not free. The black liberation movement is thus a continuum of struggles, where each discrete movements sets the stage for and makes possible the next round in the liberation movement. Accordingly, the defeat of slavery was a prerequisite for the battle against Jim Crow Racism, while the legal battles of the thirties and forties made possible the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties; and these struggles set the stage for the battle against neoliberal capitalism, structural racism and thick injustice.  In this blog, I use a theoretical framework based on three interactive concepts: freedom, black positionality in the economy, and black underdevelopment.  The thesis is that black subordination in the American hierarchy is based on the interplay of their three factors, operating within the context of structural racism and thick injustice.



Freedom is one of those shadowy terms that needs to be carefully defined. In a 2005 report to the U.N.,  Kofi Annan, then Secretary- General,  conceptualized the goals of the Millennium Declaration as the larger freedom;  a concept that  included  food security, social justice, education, work, social well-being, and  life without fear or want.  Annan’s use of the phrase—in larger freedom—suggest that freedom is a duality composed of two dimensions—smaller and larger freedoms.  I argue that the smaller freedom  refers to political and democratic rights, including free speech, spatial  mobility, gender equality, Gay Rights, and equal treatment under the law, including the right to vote.  The larger freedom refers to the right to a living wage; good, affordable housing; quality education; food security; social security, physical, social and mental well-being, and the right to live in a healthy neighborhood without fear of crime and violence.  These two dimensions of freedom are interactive, with the smaller freedom being a requisite for obtaining the larger freedom, although securement of the smaller freedom does not automatically mean people will obtain their larger freedom.  Only when people possess both the smaller and larger freedoms are they truly free or liberated.

Positionality of blacks in the Economy

The United States is a hierarchical society, and it is the location and role of blacks in the economy that determines their life course, chances and outcomes, as well as defines their social relations to other socio-racial groups in society.  This positionality of blacks at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic order is the foundation upon which their subordinate status in the United States is based. Within this scheme of conceptualization, blacks were brought to America to work as slaves in the country’s most strategic industry—the cotton industry. They were situated at the bottom of the socio-economic order during the slave epoch, and they have been there ever since.

Black Underdevelopment

The concept of black underdevelopment was developed by Walter Rodney, Manning Marable and Clyde Woods.  It refers to the brutal and systematic effort to keep blacks powerless and under-educated and to keep their communities weak, with limited resources and a fragile organizational and institutional social infrastructure. The goal is to stop blacks from acquiring the critical consciousness, sociopolitical collective efficacy, and the resources needed to win their freedom. Manning Marable, for example, argued that the underdevelopment of African Americans was a prerequisite for the development of the U.S. political economy.

Using this framework, I will explore the black struggle during four periods in American history.  Before proceeding, I want to acknowledge that determining historical periods is a tricky business; in my selection of these four periods, I sought to capture the prime socioeconomic forces driving the development of the United States over time, and then locate the black struggle within that moment.  These periods are (1) The Slave Epoch [1619 to 1865=246 years]; the Industrializing Age (1866 – 1899 = 33 Years); the Urban Age (1900 – 1950=50 years); and the Age of Neoliberalism (1951-2015=64 years).


The Slave Epoch (1620 -1865)

Most people would agree that slavery was a ruthless, mean-spirited abomination. Yet, the system lasted for over 240 years, and it took the bloodiest war in the nation’s history to end it.  This raises the question, how could something so bad, last for so long?  To answer this question, the slave system needs to be situated in the cotton industry and the rise of the textile industries. Cotton was big business, and black slaves were an indispensable and irreplaceable source of labor for that industry.  In the 1830s and 1840s, cotton anchored the nation’s political economy and was the generator of untold wealth.

Cotton was King.  It was the crucial raw material for the textile industry, and an economic multiplier that produced a large supply chain, composed of a network of companies involved in the production, distribution and retailing of products directly and indirectly related to cotton.  Here, we are talking about insurance companies, the shipping industry, ship building, sail making, the clothing industry, along with the manufacture, distribution and retail of guns and ammunition.  King Cotton was the leading national export from 1803 to 1937, fostered trade between U.S. and Europe, catalyzed the territorial expansion of the Old Southwest,  and animated the textile industry and the American Industrial Revolution.


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Cotton was King, and this explains why slavery lasted for 245 years.  This brings us back to the question of slavery. Black slaves were an indispensable and irreplaceable source of labor.  Without them, there would be no cotton industry.   Slavery was a requirement for the cotton industry, and it lasted until slaves became an obsolete source of labor.  Even then, it took a war to end slavery.  This raises the theoretical question, “how could this brutal slave system be sustained over time?”  For slavery to endure, it was necessary to brutally and systematically underdevelop black people.  Black underdevelopment was an ongoing process, not an event.  It consisted of efforts to wipe away their African culture, language, traditions and religions.  Underdevelopment meant breaking up families, raping women, and establishing dependency on the plantation owner.  It meant banning education and learning; thwarting the building of organizations and institutions, and it meant creating a brutal system of repression based on terrorism and brutal oppression.

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Still blacks fought back, and struggle saturated the black experience; it was fused with black values, beliefs and traditions. The plantation became a contested territory.  Black slaves were a troublesome property, who created a multiplicity of ways to fight back: they built the slave community; they learned how to read and write; invented the Spirituals, both as a new form of music and as a talking drum to communicate with each other; they sabotaged, killed planters, engaged in armed insurrection, and they wore the Masks of Deceit, which concealed their true feelings and desires.

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And blacks ran away.  Escape from slavery was a form of resistance and struggle.  This is where the Underground Railroad comes in.  Escape from slave system would have been impossible without the support of hundreds of people who put themselves in harm’s way by collaborating with “fugitive” slaves—providing them with encouragement, information, food, money, transportation, meeting places, safe houses and assistance on their journey from the plantation to a liberated zone—a place where they could recreate their lives and find a life path, which they chose.

The Industrializing Age (1866-1899)

In 1865, the Civil War ended slavery and ushered in a new era in American history.  In this moment, the epicenter of structural racism and thick injustice remained in the South, but the focal point of struggle now centered on the battle over land ownership. In many ways, this was the most decisive moment in U.S. history. At this critical junction, the United States had a choice: turn over the land belonging to the Confederacy to blacks and provide them with the resources and technical assistance needed to become the new captains of the cotton industry; or to allow the former members of the confederacy to regain control over the land,  political power and to reestablish hegemony over the South.

Let me put the “choice” in context.  When the war ended, blacks understood the only way they could avoid subjugation by racist whites was to own land and the resources to farm it.  They also knew that to sustain freedom, they would have to build schools, colleges, institutions, organizations and associations. If they controlled land in the South and built interactive relationships with urban blacks, they could obtain freedom.


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Blacks had every reason to believe that northern white political leadership would support them.  The Confederacy had launched the bloodiest war in American history.  Over 700,000 Americans died in that war, which is more causalities than all the U.S. wars combined.  Blacks, on the other hand, fought and died for the union. About 179,000 blacks, comprising 10% of the Union troops, fought in the war, with about 40,000 dying. So, that was the choice.  Do you give the land to blacks who toiled it for 246 years and fought and died at your side; or do you give it back to the confederates?

Northern politicians and industrialist were clear.  Cotton was still an important component of the southern economy, and these leaders wanted to reconstruct the South under white leadership and control, and this meant returning the confiscated land to their confederate owners and recreating the former slaves as a semi-free peasantry tied to white owned land. To make this system work, a new method of social control had to be established.

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During his presidency, Andrew Johnson ordered the return of all land under federal control to its previous owners. The Freedman’s Bureau, then, informed blacks on these lands that they could either sign labor contracts with the planters or be evicted.  The army troops would forcibly remove those who refused or resisted. Through these and other means, whites from the old Confederacy were able to regain control over the agricultural lands and reestablish their political power.

Without land or money, most blacks became sharecroppers and tenant framers. Under this system, black families would rent small plots of land, or shares, to work themselves.  In return, they would give a portion of their crop to the landowner at the end of the year. The situation of tenant farmers was similar to sharecroppers, but they had the option to use cash or a combination of cash and crops to rent the land.

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The sharecropping and tenant system was anchored by a debt system. The landowner would provide the sharecropper with tools and other supplies, which would be deducted from their share of crops at harvest. Concurrently, sharecroppers and tenants developed relations with local merchant, from whom they purchased goods on credit.  With owners and merchants keeping the books, blacks found themselves trapped in a system of perpetual debt that kept them tied to the land.

During this period, some blacks acquired land and become independent farmers, but the vast majority of African Americans were sharecroppers.  By 1870, only about 30,000 blacks in the South owned land compared with four million others who did not.   To maintain control over blacks, whites not only underdeveloped their community, but also they used disenfranchisement, lynching, random acts of violence and the establishment of a rigid system of Jim Crow racial segregation.

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This was the black nadir. Still, African Americans resisted and fought back. On multiple fronts, they pushed back against the underdevelopment of their community.  Blacks lost the critical struggle to gain control over the land, but they nevertheless built a community with a strong social infrastructure during the 35 year period between 1865 and 1900. During this period, they build schools, colleges, and churches; they produced a critical mass of preachers, doctors, lawyers, farm owners, business persons, urban workers, and teachers, along with a core of artists, musicians, poets.  Most critically, by the turn of the century, Black America had produced a core of radical black scholars and thinkers who were formulating a strategy for moving the race forward.

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One final note, during this period, blacks continued to use moving or migration as a form of struggle. The black exodusters moved to Kansas, while other African Americans headed to Oklahoma, while still others left for cities in the South and North.  As these African Americans left the South, I am sure they used an interactive network of people, supports, meeting places, and safe havens to help them make that journey from the rural south to other places, where they could be build a better life for themselves and their families. During the Industrializing Age, although blacks lost the crucial struggle, they still won significant victories.  Still, the winds of change were blowing.

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On the eve of the 20th century,  the black masses were trapped in the most technologically backward sector of the economy, while industrialism was triumphing and the United States was about to become an urban nation.  This was both a low and high point in the struggle of African Americans. At one level, they were faced with an intensification of violence and exploitation in the rural South, while on the other hand, a new black leadership and agenda for change was emerging.

The Urban Age [1900 – 1950]

The first half of the 20th century represented a transitional period in which African Americans would be transformed from a rural to an urban people.  When the century started, blacks were still a peasantry with about 83% of the population working on farms.  This radically changed over the next 50 years.  By midcentury, African Americans were now an urban people, with over 60% of the population living in cities. The community was dominated by an industrial proletariat and a small cadre of white-collar and professional service workers.  The city was the black people’s land.

Blacks continued to fight against the evils of the debt peonage, violence and the exploitation of black farmers, but the focal point of struggle shifted to the cities, which was now the epicenter of racism and social class inequality.  The growth of the black urban community and the transformation of cities into dynamic cultural centers of black life transformed the movement. The black struggle because a national movement that was headquartered in cities.  In this context, northern cities became a liberated zone, where the most radical segments of the movement were located. Between 1900 and 1950, the constant inflow of blacks from the rural countryside to the cities became a critical aspect of the black struggle. This constant inflow of people infused the movement with an animating force that expanded the black community and energized the freedom struggle.

The publication of Souls of Black Folks in 1903 by W.E.B. DuBois was a clarion call to action for black America. In the opening paragraph of this classic, DuBois declared the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the colorline.  Two years later, he and other black radicals founded the Niagara Movement.  This movement not only signified the metamorphosis of black struggle into a national movement headquartered in cities, but also it forged an agenda of struggle that blacks followed over the next 65 years. In its Declaration of Principles, the Niagara Movement called for the right to vote, equal protection under the law, and equal access to employment, health, decent housing, education and the right to protect and agitate for freedom. The radicals believed that black economic progress and other advances could not be sustained without being anchored by their civil rights.




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Following the Niagara Movement, blacks built a plethora of national and local organizations to guide their nascent movement.  For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909; the Urban League in 1910; the United Negro Improvement Association in 1914; the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915; the Nation of Islam in 1930, and in 1941, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1941.  Most critically, these institutions were part of the social infrastructure of the black institutional ghetto. During the urban age, the institutional ghetto anchored the black community and functioned as a platform for struggle against Jim Crow racism.  The ghetto social superstructure consisted of colleges, hospitals, banks, churches, institutions and associational organizations.  The ghetto, then, was a liberated zone from which the freedom movement operated.

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During this period, blacks engaged in intense struggles on multiple fronts; however, the most strategic struggle in this moment was the legal battle. The goal was to demolish the legal foundation upon which Jim Crow stood, while simultaneously enacting public policies that attacked the system frontally.


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Black lawyer were the frontline solders in this legal warfare, and the U.S. Supreme Court was the coliseum where the combatants fought.  The legal teams won victory and victory on racial issues dealing with travel, employment, and housing; and these Court rulings dismantled state support of practices that violated the principle of equal rights and access to opportunity.

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The foundation of the Jim Crow racism, however, was rooted in the “separate-but-equal’ doctrine, established in the 1896, Plessey v. Ferguson decision.  If the “separate-but-equal” principle could be defeated on the educational front, the entire Jim Crow system would collapse.

The lawyers argued that separate black schools were not equal to white schools in quality or kind. In 1938, the first victory came when the Supreme Court ruled that the out-of-state-scholarships, provided by certain states for black graduate students, violated the “separate-but-equal” principle, if those same states had graduate schools for white students.

Then, in 1948, the second major victory came when the Court ruled that the Oklahoma Law School must admit a student, which they had rejected based on color, because the State had no black law schools. The third big victory came in a June 1950 Court decision.  The Court ruled that the University of Texas had to admit black students because the state’s all-black law school was inferior to the white one.  This victory set the stage for the final showdown. In 1954, the Supreme Court announced its landmark decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared that there is no such thing as separate-but-equal. The ruling destroy the legal foundation upon which Jim Crow racism was built, setting the stage for African Americans to storm the fortress of state-sponsored racism  and demolish the system.

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There are two issues I want to discuss before moving on to the next and final epoch.  Although making great strides during this period, the black struggle nevertheless suffered a devastating setback.  Robert C. Weaver, the black scholar, believed that a racist dual labor market undergirded the structural dimension of racism. This dual labor market formed a structural framework that kept African Americans tied to the lowest paying and most obsolete jobs in the economy. This positionality in the labor market, Weaver believed, made possible black subordination in all sectors of American society.  It meant that blacks continually held the lowest paying jobs situated in most technologically backward sectors of the economy.  This viewpoints explains the black proverb, “Last hired, first fired.”

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Black unemployment and joblessness were structural components of the American systems of racism.  Until this dimension of racism was destroyed, blacks would be located in the economic margins of American society.  Toward this end, he called for a national policy of “full employment.” This strategy was designed as an alternative to welfare, which would ensure that anyone who wanted to work had a job. The policy was based on the idea that whenever the private sector failed to produce enough jobs, the government would step in to produce additional jobs to absorb the surplus workers.

For the second time in U.S. history, the national government had a choice.  It could create an employment system that eliminated the need for welfare and ensure that anyone wanting a job could find one. The government decided not to do this.  When the Full Employment Act was passed in 1946, the bill had been gutted.  Thus, when the Urban Age ended in 1950, the dual labor market remained intact, and blacks remained locked in the economic basement, where they held low-paying, technologically obsolete jobs.

The Neoliberal Age [1950-2015]

Blacks have encountered novel challenges in each historical moment, which forces them to adapt and discover new methods of struggle. The Neoliberal Age was no different.  Yet, at the same time, this era is proving to be more complex and difficult than any other. The reason is in the Neoliberal Age, blacks are confronting head-on structural racism and thick injustice, the bastion of American racism and social class inequality.  Blacks cannot win this struggle without fundamentally changing American society.

The Neoliberal Age consists of two distinct periods. The first period extends from 1950 to 1970, and the second from 1970 to the present.  The twenty years between 1950 and 1970 were the most turbulent in black history, and they were shaped by the convergence of four interactive and overlapping forces of change:  the Second Great Migration, rise of the metropolitan city, the radical transformation of the economy, and the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1954, at the very moment that blacks were celebrating passage of the 1954 Supreme Court decision and preparing for their final onslaught against the citadel of Jim Crow Racism, the powerful forces of socioeconomic change were starting to dramatically alter their world.  In the years following World War 11, the economy shifted from industry to service, high technology and information and from Keynesian to neoliberal economic policies. This economic transformation also spawned, in part, the Second Great Migration between 1940 and 1970. This movement of thousands of blacks from farm to city altered the landscape of American cities and spawned the chronic urban crisis.

More than five million blacks moved to urban centers during this moment. For example, the black population of Detroit jumped from 9% to 44%, Cleveland from10% to 39%, St. Louis from 13% to 41% and New York from 6% to 21%.  In virtually every urban center in the country, the black population increased dramatically. As blacks moved in and even larger number of whites moved to the suburbs. In Detroit, the white population fell by 59%; in Cleveland, 50%; St. Louis 52%, and New York, 16%.  The story of a socially transformed metropolitan region was the same everywhere.  The influx of thousands of African Americans into urban centers changed the dynamics of metropolitan growth and development.


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Blacks entered cities undergoing massive change.  As thousands of blacks poured into the urban centers, the federal bulldozer was displacing thousands as they remade the city by building roads and highways to connect with the suburbs and interstate highway system, expanding downtowns and hospitals, universities and cultural institutions. This process turned the central city and suburban municipalities into one big urban metropolis; and this altered fundamentally the dynamics of black neighborhood and community development.  This remaking of the urban metropolis changed the socioeconomic and spatial dynamics driving the development of the black community.

Hopeful blacks came to the cities searching for opportunities, but instead they encountered indifferent political leaders, racist police, underdevelopment of their neighborhoods, and a changing economy.  When blacks started their northern trek, for example, they had no idea that emergent neoliberalism was combining with a technological revolution to eliminate jobs almost as quickly as they got them.  Robert Weaver knew this, but his quest for a Full Employment Act failed.  Blacks were in deep trouble. Between 1953 and 1962, almost two million blue-collar jobs disappeared, and by the mid-1960s, blacks were experiencing double-digit unemployment, and some were leaving the labor force altogether. Commenting on the economic plight of black workers in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Activist Tom Kahn lamented, “It is as if racism, having put blacks in their economic place, stepped aside to watch technology destroy that place.”

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Flashing back to 1954, the Brown decision destroyed the legal foundation of Jim Crow Racism, and African Americans united to make their final onslaught against the weakened system.  That movement was launched on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, precipitating the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Over the next decade, blacks, and their white allies, waged a relentless struggle to win their civil rights.  They engaged in mass organizing, built organizations, boycotted, marched, demonstrated, and protested; they held sit-ins, took freedom rides, conducted liberation classes, lobbied politicians, raised critical consciousness,  and transformed their culture by reclaiming their identity—they discarded the Negro label, and called themselves black, adopted African names, embraced non-Christian religions, gave their children exotic, non-European names and reinterpreted their history.  Then, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of the 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the citadel of Jim Crow Racism came tumbling down.

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This dramatic victory on the Civil Rights front was both an epilogue and a prologue on the struggle of Black America.  It ended the era when Civil Rights and the struggle for the smaller freedom dominated the black liberation agenda, while it simultaneously introduced the onset of a new era when the fight against neighborhood underdevelopment, joblessness, poor health, bad housing, inadequate education and other urban-based socioeconomic problems would dominate the black liberation agenda.

This struggle brought structural racism and thick injustice to the forefront.  The Civil Rights battle removed the facades that concealed the structures, policies, institutional and individual practices that restricted black access to the resources, opportunities and power required to develop their communities and move up the socioeconomic ladder. Concurrently, in this new setting, the emergence of Fair Housing legislation combined with the rhetoric of American being in a post-Civil Rights Age made the neo-exploitation and oppression of blacks imperceptible and thickened injustice, making it difficult to see and understand.

In the sixties, the stealth character of structural racism and thick injustice notwithstanding, the changing mood of the black masses and the evolution of new forms of struggle were evident. The 1964 Harlem Rebellion, the long hot summers of urban rebellions, emergence of the Black Power Movement,  rise of the Black Panther Party, the Campus Revolution, emergence  of the Anti-Revisionist Community Movement, and the advent of radical black, Latino, Asian and white organizations uniting to build a just society provide evidence of the emergence of a new movement. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. closed out the 1960s and formally ended the Civil Rights Age.

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Neoliberalism Matures:  1970 -2015

The seventies did not duplicate the turbulence of the 1960s, and it proved to be a transitional period. The maturing of neoliberalism combined with the brutal suppression of the radical left by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program [COINTELPRO] ushered in a new period in the long black struggle. During the seventies, the campus revolution transformed higher education, while blacks begin the complex task of building new organizations and institutions to tackle the more complex, structural problems facing the race. Concurrently, the repression of the radical black left intensified.

By the end of the decade, COINTELPRO and their allies had literally destroyed the radical black left, along with their white allies. With the radical movement in shambles, black middle-class optimism soared, while the conditions of the masses worsened.  In this moment, the greatly expanded college educated elite pursued their careers, black entrepreneurs built their businesses, while black entertainers and professional athletes entered a Golden Age.


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The quest to integrate into white society replaced the quest to build the black community, while lack radicalism was suppressed. Ironically, the building of elite black middle-class neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Georgia and the black suburbanization movement were part of what I call “black neoliberal integrationism.”  This concept means that blacks embraced capitalist cultural values, including the placement of individual goals over group goals, and they sought professional advancement without linking their success to black social responsibility.  The black middle-class believed that King’s Dream had come true.  The election of Barak Obama as the first black president of the United States had people dancing in the streets, and soon, liberals and conservatives alike were declaring that America had entered a “Post Racial Age.”

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This ideal of progress, of course, was an illusion.  Between 1970 and 2013, black progress was essentially flat-lined in terms of the median household income, percentage of blacks in poverty, the white-to-black unemployment ratio, and the percentage of blacks attending segregated schools. Black incarceration, however, had not flat-lined.  It grew exponentially over this time period, making the United States in the leading jailer in the world.

Meanwhile, the wealth gap between blacks and whites expanded dramatically between 1983 and 2010.  Indeed, across the country, black homeowners were devastated by the subprime mortgage crisis, with many losing their homes or having their mortgages go underwater.  Thus, the expansion of the college educated elite, along with the rise of Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and the legion of pro football, basketball and baseball players could not keep the black-white wealth gap from widening, nor could it move the median household income needle.

Ferguson shattered this black illusion—i.e. the myth of suburbia as some type of mystical neo-Promised Land, where blacks could find freedom and opportunity.  No one saw Ferguson coming. The shooting of Michael Brown on August 14, 2014 ran counter to the Black American Dream narrative. Blacks were believed they could move to freedom.  Fair Housing, Section 8, Affordable Housing, Moving to Opportunity, HOPE V1 and poverty deconcentration were public policy components of the Move to Freedom myth—that idea that blacks could alter their life chances and outcomes simply by changing addresses.

Ferguson terminated this fantasy.  It demonstrated that black suburbanization actually represented the metropolitanization of the chronic urban crisis.  The black urban predicament was no longer central city problem; it was now a metropolitan problem.  Even in exclusively black middle-class neighborhoods the racist mortgage system wreaked havoc by robbing blacks of millions in home equity.  In this new context, the epicenter of racism and social class inequality has shifted to underdeveloped black neighborhood.  And it will be here that we find the next phase in the long black struggle for liberation.

In this latter point, I want to stress that these underdeveloped blacks neighborhoods are entangled in a web of structural racism and thick injustice.  This means that blacks face structural racism and thick injustice both inside and outside of their neighborhoods.  So, the battle for liberation and freedom must occur inside and outside the neighborhood.  Equally important, the struggle of African Americans must be linked to the larger struggle of the American people to build a just society.  Blacks cannot find liberation and freedom in an America dominated by structural inequality and thick injustice.  The long struggle for black liberation must be united with the struggle of the American people to build a just, social democratic nation.



In closing, I want to reflect on what we have learned from the long black struggle for freedom. To start, the black liberation movement will continue as long as blacks are denied access to the larger freedoms and find themselves the target of oppression and exploitation, police brutality, and structural racism and thick injustice.  Blacks have always been unfree in the United States.  This reality caused “struggle” to become interwoven with the fabric of black life and culture.  However, while the black liberation struggle will be continuous and ongoing until African Americans are free, the struggle will take different forms at different time.  So, the frontal struggle against structural racism and thick injustice will be different from the Civil Rights Movement, although it will certainly use some of the strategies and tactics. Another critical lesson is the role that underdevelopment plays in the suppression of black America.  At every stage, the brutal and systematic underdevelopment of blacks kept them tied to the bottom of the economy.  This positionality of blacks at the bottom of the occupational structure, made possible their exploitation in other societal dimensions.  The racist dual labor market is foundation on which structural racism and thick injustice is built.

Over time, African Americans have battled against slavery, debt peonage, Jim Crow racism, and now they are engaged in a frontal assault against structural racism and thick injustice.  This battle cannot be won without making fundamental changes in American society and without building unity with the larger social justice movement.  This battle is the most complex one that blacks have fought in the long struggle for liberation and freedom.  The reason is to win this phase of the black liberation struggle requires a movement that will lead to the transformation of the United States.  This will not happen overnight, but it will happen.

This brings me to the last point. Study of the long struggle indicates that blacks can and will win their battle for liberation and freedom. For example, blacks and their allies defeated the slavocracy, and they defeated Jim Crow and state sponsored racism and discrimination.  The battle against structural racism and thick injustice will also be won.  So, there are three lessons that we have learned.  First, we can win.  Second, we make our greatest advancements when we are united with whites and other freedom fighters. Third, it will take a long time to win this victory.

Academics and Researchers Will Lead the Way in Cuba


I have visited Cuba once a year since the summer of 1999. Over the decades, to many Americans, Cuba has been an intriguing and mysterious place. The establishment of diplomatic relations and the easing of travel restrictions will lift that shroud of mystery, and give Americans a chance to know their neighbors.

The academy, scholars, researchers and students will lead the way; and they will construct the lens through which many Americans will initially view and learn about the island.

Tourism is still forbidden and the embargo continues to cast its shadow across the island. Still, the new rules make it easier to travel to Cuba for educational and cultural purposes. So, I expect an explosion of activities on the education and cultural front.

Already, dozens of colleges and universities, in all parts of the country, have established, or they are in the process of establishing varied education and cultural exchange programs with Cuba. Everywhere, education and cultural travel programs are popping up.

Interest is high.

People want to go to this forbidden island. There is a big and growing market for these educational and cultural programs — in part because they are only legitimate way for many people to travel to Cuba.

These educational programs will range from very short ones (two weeks) to those that will last for a semester or more. There will be degree granting programs, such as the defunct joint Master’s program in Caribbean and Cultural Studies between the University at Buffalo and Universidad de la Habana. In this program, our students spent time studying in Havana and their students spent time in Buffalo.

There will be instances when Cuban students study in the United States and American students study in Cuba. This is already happening. This fall, we will have at least one student from Havana enrolled in the University at Buffalo’s Caribbean, Latin America and Latino Studies programs.

There are currently American students studying medicine at Cuba’s famed Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM). The medical school has a special commitment to black and Latino students from the United States. The Cuba-black and Latino connection was the outcome of a visit to the island by the USA Congressional Black Caucus.

Rep. Bennie Thompson from Mississippi mentioned the shortage of doctors in marginal black and Latino neighborhoods in the USA, Fidel Castro responded by establishing scholarships for youth from such communities. Reportedly, there are over 100 U.S. students currently enrolled in the school.

There will also be an increase in joint research programs, especially in health and the social sciences. For example, I am working with Cuban National Institute of Hygiene, Epidemiology and Microbiology to get approval for a joint study with Cuba. These types of relationships will grow.

What impact will these activities on the Cuban education system? The experiences will enrich and benefit the Cubans, but it will not bring about any structural changes in their education system. There will be things that they learn from us, but also there will be things that we learn from them.

This is not a one-way street.

Cuba is not some backward country that needs saving. There are many things that we can learn from them, just as there are things they can learn from us. We should be seeking the development of a synergistic relationship based on mutual interest and respect.

If we do this, both of our countries will benefit from the normalization of relations.