Liberal Growth Machines and the Production of Urban Racial Segmentation

karen_biopic By Karen Miller

New York City is whitening. Poor and working class people of color who were maligned for staying in urban “ghettos” a generation ago are now being pushed out of their previously denigrated neighborhoods as rents skyrocket, boutique coffee shops open, and access to affordable housing shrinks. FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) sector leaders cast these shifts as natural outgrowths of urban desire. “People,” they suggest, now prefer cosmopolitan living and more densely populated spaces, amenities that suburbs cannot provide. So, cities are filling back up with the well appointed. Since the American class system is also a racial caste system, wealthy migrants are majority-white. Debates over urban development – both residential and non-residential – are sites of struggle over how resources, production, and commerce should be organized in cities. These are spatial and racial debates over urban power, ownership, and access.

Mayors and council members of large and medium-sized cities are often self-identified liberals who cast themselves as allies of working people, align themselves with the interests of disenfranchised communities, and talk convincingly about their belief that cities should remain both interracial and class diverse. But, these urban liberals are presiding over economies that are harshly exclusive and housing markets that are expanding rather than reducing class and racial segmentation. Ultimately, liberals’ embrace of the market-logic thinking that FIRE leaders, and their allies, promote compromises their ability to offer meaningful alternative programs or visions.

I live in New York City, and have watched urban leaders foster wealth creation and promote increased property values as working people of color get shut out of more and more neighborhoods. At the same time, these elites have stripped away or gutted programs like public housing and rent regulations that have eased working people’s exposure to these inflated “market” prices. For twenty years, Republicans held onto Gracie Mansion, but these practices can be traced back before their tenure. Ed Koch, a liberal, certainly embraced them, and they have continued under de Blasio, a self-styled “progressive.” De Blasio’s affordable housing plan requires developers to build “affordable housing,” but at prices that will exclude many working people, especially people of color who are both less likely to own their dwellings, and more subject to predatory landlords. Supporters of this plan argue that liberals are limited by the realities of the market and suggest that nothing can be done about its racially differential impact. The history of discrimination that has produced these inequalities, they imply, is not their responsibility to address. But, as always, activists call on de Blasio to embrace a different vision, one that recognizes that his rezoning plan is essentially a subsidy to the wealthy. “By greatly increasing the value of the land,” Jonathan Westin argues, “we need to be capturing that value and converting it into a public good.” One that will be distributed with a history of both discrimination and racial exclusion in mind.

In my book, I examine the historical precedents to these dynamics. White liberal leaders’ commitment to urban growth in interwar Detroit both reinforced existing racial inequalities and produced new forms of racial segmentation. When I talk about white liberal leaders’ support for “growth,” I am talking about their interest in sustaining and expanding capitalist forms of accumulation. Specifically, I demonstrate that local, state, and federal officials, in dialogue with industrial leaders and other elites, promoted a vision for how to organize production, labor, and space that fostered increasing economic inequality and stratification. At the top, wealthy white urbanites – owners of the means of production – amassed spectacular fortunes and fought to consolidate their control over city resources and political power. Near the bottom, workers earned wages and some benefits in exchange for their labor and their submission to a punishing discipline both inside and outside of factories. These inequalities took on an increasingly racial cast between the two World Wars as the First Great Migration brought African Americans and other southerners flooding into northern cities. City leaders used racial segregation as a tool for labor management, lending it new life and a new set of meanings in the North, and integrating it into their vision of urban growth. These same urban elites – including politicians, businesspeople, and philanthropists – came to adopt the language of race neutrality and increasingly embraced the idea that a gradual move toward racial equality was morally good. At the same time that a majority distanced themselves from the most egregious expressions of racism, none supported any form of state intervention into practices that upheld racially unequal relations of power, or the increasingly racially segregated spatial order.

Liberal political leaders often aligned themselves with the interests of the “downtrodden.” However, they were careful to divorce their concern for the less fortunate from critiques of private property and capitalism. Instead, they cast elite political power and control over resources as natural and legitimate outgrowths of urbanization and industrialization. These dynamics, they conceded, produced problematic excesses like poverty and unemployment that were especially acute among African Americans, but they did not call into question the morality of profit and inequality themselves. White liberal politicians did not live up to their promise to produce a more racially equitable society because they did not believe in a racially or economically redistributive state. Even as they (often ambivalently) embraced the language of racial equality and expressed empathy for the plight of people of color, they embraced a class vision that equated urban growth with the accumulation of wealth at the top of an unequal, racially stratified pyramid.

Karen Miller is Professor of History at LaGuardia Community College and in the MALS Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is currently writing a book about internal labor migration and the US colonial state in the Philippines. Her first book, Managing Inequality: Northern Racial Liberalism in Interwar Detroit shows that white northern leaders embraced egalitarian ideas about race in the 1920s and 30s at the same time that they helped build racially segregated and unequal cities. Dr. Miller’s articles and reviews have appeared in the Journal of American History, The Middle West Review, The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Michigan Feminist Studies, and Against the Current and the edited collection, Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Struggles in America.

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