Truth and reconciliation commissions

When does a society need a process of “truth and reconciliation” along the lines of such processes in South Africa, El Salvador, and Argentina?  Here are some recent examples of truth and reconciliation processes:  the fate of the “disappeared” in Argentina (link); Indian Residential Schools in Canada (link); Korean War civilian casualties (link); Liberian civil conflict (link); lynchings in the US South (link); and, of course, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (link).

The general theory of TRC is that a society is sometimes grievously divided over events and crimes that have occurred in the past, and that honest recognition of those crimes may lay a foundation for reconciliation within the society. Here is a summary statement of the purpose of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission from the South African Ministry of Justice:

… a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.

But what more can we say about what facts might trigger the need for a TRC process?

First, such a process is only invoked when there is a serious history of injustice within the community, leading to a situation in which one group has been badly treated by other groups or powerful institutions.  The stakes need to be high for current members of society in order to justify establishing a TRC.

Second, a TRC process seems to be most needed when the consequences of the past injustice persist into the present: the bad things that happened in the past continue to burden some groups in the present.

Third, there is an implication of abiding resentment and rancor within the current population. The injustice of the past continues to be a source of emotional division between members of the relevant groups. This is the reconciliation part of the agenda: by honestly confronting the facts about the past injustices, the groups subject to this treatment may be in a better place to resolve their rancor. And more practically, honest recognition of the past may lead to concrete steps in the present to restore the interests and rights of affected groups.

Fourth, there is a common feature of violence and subjugation in the instances where TRC processes have been invoked to date: pogroms, mass killings, lynchings, and other forms of inter-group violence.

So what are some important examples of historical circumstances where TRC is called for? There are many:

  • The expatriation of French Jews by the French government into the hands of the Nazis, leading to the deaths of thousands of people from this community.
  • The Rwandan genocide.
  • The Argentine military’s policy of “disappearing” large numbers of its opponents, involving secret imprisonment, torture, and murder.
  • White violence against black people in the American South, enforcing white power through lynchings, shootings, and violent intimidation.
  • Organized ethnic cleansing and mass murder in Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia.
  • The fact of slavery as practiced in the United States through Emancipation.
  • The crimes of death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s, including a degree of US support and involvement.
  • Robert Mugabe’s use of ZANU-PF paramilitary thugs in Zimbabwe to maintain his political power.

Here is the immediate question of interest in this posting: how do the facts of northern race relations fit into the parameters of truth and reconciliation?  In the Detroit area the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion is calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to honestly examine the history of race and residence in the region (link).  The Roundtable states that —

The establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, inspired by the process that took place in South Africa, will allow us to develop an appropriate understanding of past injustices and to envision constructive remedies to create a new regional culture of fairness, equal opportunity and prosperity.

(Here is a link to the Facebook page for the organization in which the initiative is launched.)

So let’s ask the crucial question: are the patterns of racial segregation and inequality of opportunity that are unmistakably involved in most US large cities an appropriate cause for a process of truth and reconciliation?

In many ways the answer appears to be “yes.” Urban segregation was and is a source of massive injustice for black Americans.  It embodied a quasi-permanent pattern of inequality of opportunity and outcome on African-American citizens.  It was the result of specific but often hidden social practices that embodied a pattern of white privilege.  And these practices sometimes involved actual and threatened violence.  So entrenched discrimination and segregation constitute social harms that meet most of the criteria mentioned above, and the truth about the underlying mechanisms is not widely known.

In short, most honest observers would probably agree that the history of racial segregation in Southeast Michigan reflects serious injustice and continues to inflict harms on people in the region today.  These harms include disproportionate levels of poverty, unemployment, inadequate education, and differential health outcomes.  And many would agree as well that social injustices of this magnitude need to be addressed openly and honestly.

The map of the Detroit metropolitan area below represents a measure of “neighborhood opportunity” across the region.  It is published in an important report, “Opportunity for All,” by john a. powell and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University (link).  What it documents in a very visual way is the current effects of past and present practices of residential segregation: the areas of high African-American population line up very precisely with the areas of low “neighborhood opportunity”.  (Here is a keynote address by john a. powell to the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion (link) that lays out the data in great detail.)

So a sustained and honest effort to uncover and disseminate the historical causes of these patterns of racial segregation in the region is a positive step forward.

What is perhaps more difficult to answer is the question of efficacy.  Do these TRC processes actually work?  Do they succeed in changing attitudes in the populations in which they operate?  Do they help communities develop more harmonious and collaborative approaches to the problems they face?  And does “truth” lead to “reconciliation” in a significant number of cases?  The Michigan Roundtable conducted a survey of racial attitudes in Michigan in 2009, and one question in particular stands out.  In 2009 56% of residents said that we will have racial equality “in 100 years” or “never,” compared to 48% in 2008.  In other words, well over half of all Michigan citizens despair of achieving racial equality within five generations.  And 68% of African American citizens in Michigan expressed the same lack of hope.  We need to do better than this at achieving real racial equality; the question is, whether the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission can help us move forward in practical and effective ways.

Urban inequalities and social mobility

Most American cities commonly look a lot like the poverty map of Cleveland above, when it comes to the spatial distribution of poverty and affluence.  There is a high-poverty core, in which residents have low income, poor health, poor education, and poor quality of life; there are rings of moderate income; and there are outer suburbs of affluent people with high quality of life.

We can ask two different kinds of sociological questions about these facts: What factors cause the reproduction of disadvantage over multiple generations? And what policy interventions have some effect on enhancing upward social mobility within disadvantaged groups? How can we change this cycle of disadvantage?

The persistence of inequalities in urban America was addressed in a special 2008 issue of the Boston Review in a forum on “ending urban poverty.”  Particularly interesting is Patrick Sharkey’s article “The Inherited Ghetto.” Sharkey begins with a crucial and familiar point: that racial inequality has changed only very slightly since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The concentration of black poverty in central cities has not substantially improved over that period of time, and the inequalities of health, education, and employment associated with this segregation have continued. And the association between neighborhood, degree of segregation, and income and quality of life is very strong: children born into a poor and segregated neighborhood are likely to live as adults — in a poor and segregated neighborhood.

Sharkey documents these statements on the basis of his analysis of the data provided the University of Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the first major statistical study of several generations of families in terms of residence, income, occupation, health, and other important variables. Using a computer simulation based on the two-generation data provided by the Panel Study, Sharkey indicates that it would take five generations for the descendants of a family from a poor, black neighborhood to have a normal expectation of living in a typical American neighborhood. (That’s one hundred years in round numbers.)  In other words: the progress towards racial equality in urban America is so slow as to be virtually undetectable.

Particular frustrating is the persistence of segregation in the forty years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act. Sharkey argues that this fact is partially explained by the fact that the policy choices made by federal and local authorities concerning housing patterns have more or less deliberately favored segregation by race. Beginning with the initial Fair Housing legislation — which was enacted without giving the Federal agencies the power of enforcement — both federal and state policies have reinforced segregation in housing. Sharkey notes that federal housing programs have subsidized the growth of largely white suburbs, while redlining and other credit-related restrictions have impeded the ability of black families to follow into these new suburban communities. The continuation of informal discrimination in the housing market (as evidenced by “testers” from fair housing agencies) further reinforces continuing segregation between inner-city black population and the suburban, mostly white population.

So racial segregation is one important mechanism that maintains the economic and social inequalities that  our society continues to embody.

How about policies that would work to speed up social progress?  It is commonly agreed that improving access to higher education for disadvantaged people is the best way to speed their economic advancement.  The theory is that individuals within the group will benefit from higher education by enhancing their skills and knowledge; this will give them new economic opportunities and access to higher-wage jobs; the individuals will do better economically, and their children will begin life with more economic support and a set of values that encourage education. So access to higher education ought to prove to be a virtuous circle or a positive feedback loop, leading to substantial social mobility in currently disadvantaged groups.

This theory appears to be substantially true: when it is possible to prepare poor children for admission to college, their performance in college and subsequent careers is good and lays a foundation for a substantial change in quality of life for themselves and their families (link).

However, most of our cities are failing abysmally in the task of preparing poor children for college.  High school graduation rates are extremely low in many inner-city schools — 25-50%, and performance on verbal and math assessment tests are very low.  So a very substantial number of inner-city, high-poverty children are not being given the opportunity to develop their inherent abilities in order to move ahead in our society.  This is true in Detroit (link), and much the same is true in Cleveland, Oakland, Miami, Houston, New Orleans, and dozens of other cities.  (Here is a survey of the issues by Charles Payne in So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools.  And here is a striking report from 1970 prepared by the HEW Urban Education Taskforce.)  High poverty and poor education go hand in hand in American cities.

One important research question is whether there are behavioral or structural factors that predict or cause low performance by groups of students.  Here is a fascinating graph of high school graduation rates broken down by freshman-year absenteeism (MDRC report).  Important research is being done at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins on the dropout crisis in urban schools (link).  (Here is an earlier post on CSOS and its recommendations for improving dropout rates from urban high schools.)  The topic is important because research findings like these may offer indications of the sorts of school reforms that are most likely to enhance school success and graduation.

It is clear that finding ways of dramatically increasing the effectiveness of high-poverty schools is crucial if we are to break out of the multi-generational trap that Sharkey documents for inner-city America.  Here is a specific and promising strategy that is being pursued in Detroit by the Skillman Foundation and its partners (link), based on small schools, greater contact with caring adults, and challenging academic curricula.  This turn-around plan is based on a specific set of strategies for improving inner-city schools developed by the Institute for Student Achievement, and ISA provides assessment data that support the effectiveness of the plan in other cities.  With support from the United Way of Southeast Michigan, several large high schools are being restructured along the design principles of the ISA model.

But the reality is that this problem is immense, and a few successful experiments in school reform are unlikely to move the dial.  Somehow it seems unavoidable that only a Marshall Plan for addressing urban poverty would allow us to have any real confidence in the possibility of reversing the inequalities our cities reveal.  And none of our political leaders — and few of our taxpayers — seem to perceive the urgency of the problem.

Detroit: Taking charge of our story

New Detroit (link) and Wayne State University are putting on a major and significant conference on how the story of Detroit is being told today. Detroit is getting a lot of press these days –and it’s mostly about crisis, decline, and despair. It is hard for a city to move forward in the context of such a negative picture. And many in Detroit find this national story to be superficial and misleading. So how can we do a better job of understanding and presenting our story? (Here is a link: Ourdetroitstory.)

There is a persistent feeling in the region that the national press is writing the story of Detroit in ways that retell the myths about the past and sensationalize the present. And it makes a difference. We need more nuanced stories, and today’s conference is an important effort in that direction.

The lead speaker was Tom Sugrue, author of the 1997 book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Sugrue made several key points. Most importantly, he points out that the received wisdom about Detroit is wrong. It’s not mostly about the 1967 uprising, the white flight of the 1960s, or the racialized politics of Mayor Coleman Young. Instead, our current situation is the result of racial discrimination in employment in the 1940s through 1960s, the flight of industry from the city that began following World War II, and the patterned and systematic racial segregation that followed from Federal home loan policies, real estate steering, and violent and harrassing homeowner associations aimed at intimidating black home buyers.

So Sugrue argues that telling today’s story requires an honest understanding of 70 years of our past. The past has created a set of social forces and patterns of economic and political inequality that profoundly affect the present and future. And he argues that the boundaries that divide our region have become a deep barrier to our progress.

The next panel involved lively presentations and discussions by distinguished observers: Robin Boyle (Wayne State University), Malcolm Dade (former political strategist for Coleman Young), David Freund (University of Maryland and author of Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America), and Marcella Wilson (Matrix Human Services). There is a strong theme of needing to achieve a greater reality of racial justice to our city — and that so many other forms of progress won’t be achieved without this important dimension of change.

The discussions today are an important part of Detroit’s efforts to reinvent itself in a more equitable and affluent way. And this means understanding our history and our patterns of systemic racial disadvantage more fully.

Essentializing race?

PBS is running a program this month called “Faces of America” (link), hosted by distinguished African-American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  The program focuses on a handful of celebrity guests, a genetic profile for each, and then a variety of “surprising” discoveries about the genealogies of various of the guests.

What I found surprising and jarring in viewing Episode 3 is the degree of essentialism about race the script seems to presuppose.  Gates’s script seems to suggest that one’s racial or ethnic identity is a function of one’s genotype and one’s ancestral (though unknown) history.  At one point Professor Gates has a discussion with Kristi Yamaguchi, the Japanese figure skater.  Pointing out that her genetic profile indicates descent from a particular genetic group that originated in far northern Asia some hundred thousand years ago, he makes a joke to the effect that perhaps her skating talent is a reflection of her ancestry in an extremely cold climate.  It’s a joke, of course; but it is a telling one.  It conveys the idea that genes make the person; that one’s biological ancestry constitutes one’s race or ancestry and one’s current characteristics.

What is surprising about this biological essentialism is the fact that most scholars who think deeply about race have decisively concluded that race is not a biological category but a cultural one.  A person’s race is socially constructed, deriving from the cultural communities in which he/she was formed and not primarily from his/her genotype or biological ancestry.  Population geneticists find that there is as much genetic variation within a “racial” group as across racial groups; which seems to imply directly that the race of each group is not determined by the genetic profile of the group.  Instead, racial or ethnic identity is created by the cultural environment in which one forms his/her most basic psychological dispositions.

The American Anthropological Association has had good reason to think deeply and critically about the concept of “race.”  In 1998 the AAA released a careful statement on race.  Here are a few specific claims included in the statement:

In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species. 

At the end of the 20th century, we now understand that human cultural behavior is learned, conditioned into infants beginning at birth, and always subject to modification. No human is born with a built-in culture or language. Our temperaments, dispositions, and personalities, regardless of genetic propensities, are developed within sets of meanings and values that we call “culture.” Studies of infant and early childhood learning and behavior attest to the reality of our cultures in forming who we are.

It is a basic tenet of anthropological knowledge that all normal human beings have the capacity to learn any cultural behavior. The American experience with immigrants from hundreds of different language and cultural backgrounds who have acquired some version of American culture traits and behavior is the clearest evidence of this fact. Moreover, people of all physical variations have learned different cultural behaviors and continue to do so as modern transportation moves millions of immigrants around the world. 

So fundamentally, my reaction to the “Faces of America” script is that it seriously misrepresents the social reality of race and ethnicity, implying that identity follows from biology.  Now, of course Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is perfectly well aware of this view of the status of the category of race; he is in fact one of the country’s leading thinkers on this subject.  So it is surprising that he would have permitted the simplistic version of the facts of race, ethnicity, and ancestry that the series conveys.

The most convincing voice I heard in the program was a statement by Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich who declined to undergo the genetic screening for the program.  Her explanation of her thinking, roughly, was that her Ojibwe identity was constituted by her experience of family and community, not by ancestry; and she preferred not to confuse that identity by conflating it with facts about her distant ancestors.

The point I am making here is not that the genetic techniques to which the program refers are scientifically invalid; I would be willing to assume that there is good science behind the inferences from one person’s genotype to conclusions about distant ancestry (including the gimmick of discovering that several of the guests have an ancestor in common).  But my point is that this doesn’t tell us anything at all of much interest about race or ethnicity; these are cultural constructs rather than biological facts.

Personally the conclusion I would rather come to goes along these lines: our genotypes matter very little to our current experience and social location.  The origins of our most distant ancestors is of some scientific interest but not much social significance.  If we take pride in being “Asian-American,” “Irish,” or “African-American,” it is because we have had specific social, family, and community experiences that lead us to identify with those groups and to give special importance in their struggles and achievements through history.  The child who was a foundling in New York in 1900 and was raised in an Irish-Catholic family is no less Irish and no less Catholic if it turns out her father was an Italian anarchist and her mother was a Swedish Protestant.  It is the particular communities into which we have socialized that constitute our identities, and I think that extends to racial and ethnic identities.  Of course, some readers may think that this perspective also leads to somewhat paradoxical conclusions — for example, the foundling who is “Irish” without a bit of Celtic ancestry, or that one could be Native American without any tribal ancestry.

Equality and violence in Alabama, 1960s

image: Ben Shahn photo of Arkansas sharecropper
Creating civil and political rights for African Americans in the 1960s required courage and persistence by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.  The system of Jim Crow assured subordination in fundamental rights and needs for millions of rural southern black people — the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to use public amenities, and the right to a decent education.  This system was held in place by the threat and reality of violence — beatings, lynchings, shootings, and pervasive threats against individuals and families.  This kind of violent environment made it particularly difficult to see the road from subordination to equality.  The people of Lowndes County, Alabama, played a key role in this journey.  This is the core message of Hasan Kwame Jeffries’ excellent recent book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt.  “Bloody Lowndes” was considered the most repressive and most violent area of black suppression in the South.  So success in achieving African American voter registration and elected representation would be an important step forward.
Here is how Jeffries describes the county:

Jim Crow was a grim reality in Lowndes County, Alabama, at the beginning of 1965.  African Americans attended separate and unequal schools, lived in dilapidated and deteriorating housing, and toiled as underpaid and overworked domestics and farm laborers.  They were also completely shut out of the political process.  There were five thousand African Americans of voting age in the overwhelmingly black rural county, but not a single one was registered. (Introduction)

Jeffries tells the story of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) and its effort to succeed in registering the black population of the county.  The struggle for equal rights in Lowndes County was nationally important, and SNCC activist Stokely Carmichael played a central role in the sustained effort.  This independent political party struggled to register black voters in order to gain elected offices for black candidates. The LCFO — represented by the image of the black panther — struggled for two years against violent opposition, attempting to exercise rights created by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  (Huey Newton and Bobby Seale eventually drew inspiration from the LCFO and its symbol in the establishment of the Black Panther Party in Oakland.)

Racist violence in Lowndes County was common, and it is instructive to listen to oral histories of people who were there.  One example is Professor Gloria House, who participated in the SNCC effort to mobilize the county as a young Berkeley graduate student who “went south”.  Here is an interview in which she offers a first-hand account of one particularly violent incident in Lowndes County. It is an important and dramatic testimony about the period.  Dr. House describes the arrest of a small group of SNCC workers; their imprisonment in the local jail for two weeks; their release; and the murder of one of the SNCC workers at the hands of white extremists.

A crucial part of the story of Lowndes County that Jeffries tells is the role that forcible resistance played.  The example of nonviolent protest was available, of course, through the strategies and actions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But in the face of shotguns, torches, and ropes, the tactics of vigils, demonstrations, and boycotts seemed inadequate to the task.  Part of the success of the LCFO movement in Lowndes County was the clear statement by ordinary people in the county that they would not be intimidated, and that they would defend their rights and their lives with force if necessary.

It is interesting to compare Jeffries’ detailed study of the struggle in Lowndes County with the more general treatment of the movement in Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.  McAdam looks in detail at the factors across the South that facilitated or impeded the movement for civil and economic rights.  But Lowndes County doesn’t come into his narrative directly.  More generally, the factor of “forcible resistance” doesn’t play much of a role in his theoretical analysis.  Generally his view appears to be that forcible resistance was largely counter-productive to the movement, in that it stimulated vastly greater white supremacist response (142).  This question is worth examining in detail; there is a commonsense logic that implies that a population that makes clear its willingness to use force to defend itself against violence would deter violent attack.  So we might speculate that populations with this willingness to use force in self-defense would be more successful in establishing a zone of rights in local society.

It is important to recognize clearly and honestly the degree of violence that was exercised through the rule of the Jim Crow South, and the role that armed self-defense sometimes played in the struggle for equal rights.  It is one of the remarkable achievements of the American civil rights movement that its leaders and followers were able to steer their course towards freedom in a way that ultimately quieted the appeal to violence on all sides.

(Here is some background on Lowndes County, Alabama (link).  The ChangeDirection blog has a good multi-part series of posts on Stokely Carmichael’s evolution as a leader in Lowndes County and nationally.)

The March on Washington, August 1963

African-American citizens and a host of supporters made some of this country’s most important history almost forty-seven years ago in the mobilization that resulted in the March on Washington in August, 1963.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his most famous speech on the occasion, and of course many of us are remembering Dr. King’s legacy today as thousands of people throughout the country give a day of service in his memory.

(Over eight million people have viewed this YouTube video of the speech.)

The civil rights movement created deep and permanent changes in our country, and they were hard won. And what is clear today is the depth of change that was needed — not at the margin, not gradually, but at the core and rapidly. The attitudes and structures that constituted racial inequality and racism in this country in the 1950s and 1960s were a profound, coercive social reality. Only a concerted, courageous, and sustained social movement involving millions of people could have broken the roots of that system of thought and power. (Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer and Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 provide vivid narratives of the depth of these challenges and responses.)

It is hard to think of many historical social movements that had as much impact and success as the U.S. civil rights movement.  Its objective was not to change a temporary situation — a war, a military occupation, an egregious dictatorship, or a famine — but to create a thorough change in attitudes, ideas, and institutions; and to do that in a nation in which racism was organic.  Laws, public schools, housing, jobs, universities, hospitals, and transportation — all were racialized, all demanded change.  And then to create a movement that deliberately worked through nonviolent change — this was exceptional.

A rich tradition of leadership within the black community is one part of the story of success of this struggle for equality.  Of course many of the leaders and agents of change of that movement are now household names — Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy. But many other key figures are not so well remembered. One man in particular deserves recognition, Bayard Rustin.  Rustin was a civil rights activist throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  He was one of the earliest organizers of what became known as the Freedom Rides, and he served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violation of segregation laws in transportation in 1947.  (He also was sentenced in 1944 to two years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for violations of the Selective Service Act as a Quaker pacifist and war resister.)

Rustin was the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and he was an invaluable strategist for Dr. King.  But because of his open homosexuality he kept his visible role in the mobilization of the March on Washington to a minimum.  Numerous participants credit his organizational abilities and acute perception of what the moment required as crucial to the success of the March and what followed from it.  He went on to become an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights in the 1980s. Rustin is a great example of the persistence and courage shown by so many civil rights activists and leaders throughout America’s struggles.  (Here is some basic information about Rustin’s biography.  The NPR program State of the Re:Union ran an excellent piece on Rustin this morning; link.  Here is a film based on Rustin’s life.)

Rustin stands out as a particularly vivid example of a kind of leader who was common throughout the early decades of the modern civil rights movement: articulate, smart, passionate, committed, and courageous in the face of prejudice and threat.  And there were hundreds of such men and women.  For example, Doug McAdam provides an appendix in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 listing well over 150 leaders from churches, NAACP local chapter, independents, and students who were important protest leaders during the late 1950s.  And the networks and organizational capabilities of these men and women translated into successful mobilizations throughout the South.

McAdam’s account of the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s also gives particular emphasis to the organizations that existed within African-American society, and the millions of people who supported those organizations.  Particularly important were the churches, the local NAACP chapters, and the universities.  “Perhaps the most important resource supplied by these institutions wa a potentially mobilizable body of participants.  By virtue of their integration into the most organized segments of the black community, the students, church members, and NAACP personnel were readily available for recruitment into the movement” (128).  The movement was successful in the face of often violent opposition, because hundreds of thousands of African-American people supported its efforts with courage and tenacity.

As we reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is crucial to remember how steep the challenges were and how much we all owe to the activists and followers who joined with King and brought us closer to a society embodying racial justice and equality.  And as an observation about history, we can marvel at the magnitude of change that these men and women brought about.

Measuring recession’s impact: Michigan

Michigan has been in a rolling crisis since 2002 or so: the state has experienced the loss of manufacturing jobs, mortgage foreclosures, and plummeting state and municipal revenues at a pace that has left the region badly shaken. What have been some of the macro-level effects?  How have population, income, employment, and housing changed since 2000?  In particular, what effects has the recession had on southeast Michigan, where almost half of the state’s population lives?

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) has released a preliminary analysis of the data collected in the 2008 American Community Survey (a periodic resurvey conducted by the US Census Bureau; link).  Some of the results are startling. Most dramatic is what has happened to income, but the region also shows important changes in residential occupancy, poverty rates, and unemployment.

The report considers data for seven counties in southeast Michigan — Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne.  (This corresponds loosely to the definition of the Detroit Metropolitan Statistical Area, which consists of the six counties of Lapeer, Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair, and Wayne.) The population of this region was 4.8 million in 2008, essentially unchanged since the 2000 census. So the region had not experienced significant net out-migration as of 2008 (post).  But the age structure of the population has changed noticeably, from a median age of 35.2 in 2000 to a median age of 38.1 in 2008.

The most striking change in this period is a dramatic drop in household and per capita income.  In 2000 the median household income was $64,590, which fell to $54,184 in 2008 — a 16% decline in household income.  And per capita income fell from $40,993 to $34,665 — a 15% decline in per capita income.  This is a very large decline in a short time. 

The report also documents a wide income gap based on race.  In 2008 median white household income was $63,183, whereas in black households it was $40,021 and in Hispanic households it was $44,548.  White households were about 50% more affluent than black households. 

Both parts of these findings are important.  The overall decline in personal and family income in eight years is quite remarkable; it certainly represents a very significant decline in the standard of living in the region as a result of recession-related job losses and wage cuts.  And the racial disparities indicated by the gaps between white, black, and Hispanic households demonstrate the persistent racial disadvantages that seem to be hard-wired into the region.

The decline in family income has other harmful consequences as well.  The net purchasing power of the region dropped by a significant percentage — which translates into the loss of revenues for small businesses whose revenues depend on consumer purchases.  And state revenues based on income taxes and sales taxes in the region fell as well by a comparable percentage — leading to a fiscal crisis for the state and for municipalities.

Not surprisingly, the ACS data demonstrate that there was a significant upsurge in the poverty rate in the region between 2000 and 2008.  In 2000 10.6% of the population lived below the poverty line; and in 2008, this group had risen to 13.9% — a 31% increase.  The percentage of families with children in poverty rose from 11.5% to 15.7%, an even greater increase than in the general population.

The effects of the foreclosure crisis are visible in this report as well.  Changes in residential vacancy rates are an indicator of rising frequency of foreclosures.  In 2000 there were 106,680 vacant housing units (5.5%).  In 2008 this number had risen to 260,974 units (12.6%).  This reflected large increases in both homeowner and rental vacancy rates over the time period.

Another noteworthy feature of the report is the light it sheds on differences by county in some important variables across the region.  Most striking is the percentage of adults with a college degree.  The region as a whole has 28% of its adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher.  And this number has increased from 25% in 2000.  (At the other end of the spectrum, 12.4% of the adult population lacks a high school degree in 2008.)  But this average masks a very wide range of college attainment rates by county, from a low of 13.9% in St. Clair County (the extreme northeast of the map above) to highs of 42.3% in Oakland County and 51.3% in Washtenaw County.  Wayne County has a college completion rate of 19.5%.

Also striking are the income differences across counties.  Median household incomes ranged from a low of $42,376 (Wayne County) to a high of $71,486 (Livingston County).  Washtenaw County (home of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan) is somewhat anomalous: it has the highest percentage of college-educated adults, but its median household income is in the middle, at $57,848.

Predictably, poverty rates varied across counties as well.  Livingston County had the lowest poverty rate in 2008 (7.6%), while Wayne County had the highest poverty rate by a significant margin (20.1%).  So a person in Wayne County had almost three times the likelihood of living in poverty as a person in Livingston County.  Washtenaw County’s poverty rate is also surprisingly high, at 14.6%.

Finally, it appears that the foreclosure crisis had differential impact across the region as well.  Wayne County shows the highest residential vacancy rate in 2008 (17.9%), whereas Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, and Washtenaw Counties fall between 7.6% and 8.6%.  So the residential vacancy rate in Wayne County is at least double that of other parts of the region.

This set of data from the 2008 American Community Survey sheds light on two very important facts.  First, southeast Michigan has suffered deeply and rapidly as a result of the recession.  The loss of jobs and shrinking of business activity resulted in rapid and sharp declines in family income; the recession greatly increased the number of home foreclosures; and it resulted in placing another 155,000 people in poverty — a 31% increase in the number of people in poverty.  And second, the 2008 data demonstrate that these effects are not uniformly distributed across the region.  Several counties weathered the recession relatively well.  The worst effects have been experienced in Wayne County and the city of Detroit.  And, given the degree of racial segregation that is demonstrated in Southeast Michigan, this implies that the recession had disproportionately harmful effects on the African-American population of the state.

Wealth inequality

When we talk about inequality in the United States, we usually have a couple of different things in mind. We think immediately of income inequality. Inequalities of important life outcomes come to mind (health, housing, education), and, of course, we think of the inequalities of opportunity that are created by a group’s social location (race, urban poverty, gender). But a fundamental form of inequality in our society is a factor that influences each of these: inequalities of wealth across social groups. Wealth refers to the ownership of property, tangible and intangible: for example, real estate, stocks and bonds, savings accounts, businesses, factories, mines, forests, and natural resources. Two facts are particularly important when it comes to wealth: first, that wealth is in general very unevenly distributed in the United States, and second, that there are very striking inequalities when we look at the average wealth of major social groups.

Edward Wolff has written quite a bit about the facts and causes of wealth inequality in the United States. A recent book, Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It, Second Edition, is particularly timely; also of interest is Assets for the Poor: The Benefits of Spreading Asset Ownership. Wolff summarizes his conclusion in these stark terms:

The gap between haves and have-nots is greater now–at the start of the twenty-first century–than at anytime since 1929. The sharp increase in inequality since the late 1970s has made wealth distribution in the United States more unequal than it is in what used to be perceived as the class-ridden societies of northwestern Europe. … The number of households worth $1,000,000 or more grew by almost 60 percent; the number worth $10,000,000 or more almost quadrupled. (2-3)

The international comparison of wealth inequality is particularly interesting. Wolff provides a chart of the share of marketable wealth held by the top percentile in the UK, Sweden, and the US, from 1920 to 1992. The graph is striking. Sweden starts off in 1920 with 40% of wealth in the hands of the top one percent, and falls fairly steadily to just under 20% in 1992. UK starts at a staggering 60% (!) in the hands of the top 1 percent in 1920, and again, falls steadily to a 1992 level of just over 20%. The US shows a different pattern. It starts at 35% in 1920 (lowest of all three countries); then rises and falls slowly around the 30% level. The US then begins a downward trend in the mid-1960s, falling to a low of 20% in the 1970s; and then, during the Reagan years and following, the percent of wealth rises to roughly 35%. So we are roughly back to where we were in 1920 when it comes to wealth inequalities in the United States, by this measure.

Why does this kind of inequality matter? Partly because significant inequalities of wealth have important implications for such things as the relative political power of various groups; the opportunities that groups have within and across generations; and the relative security that various individuals and groups have when faced with economic adversity. People who own little or nothing have little to fall back on when they lose a job, face a serious illness, or move into retirement. People who have a lot of wealth, by contrast, are able to exercise a disproportionate amount of political influence; they are able to ensure that their children are well educated and well prepared for careers; and they have substantial buffers when times are hard.

Wolff offers a good summary of the empirical data about wealth inequalities in the United States. But we’d also like to know something about the mechanisms through which this concentration of wealth occurs. Several mechanisms come readily to mind. People who have wealth have an advantage in gathering the information necessary to increase their wealth; they have networks of other wealth holders who can improve their access to opportunities for wealth acquisition; they have advantages in gaining advanced professional and graduate training that increase their likelihood of assuming high positions in wealth-creating enterprises; and they can afford to include high-risk, high-gain strategies in their investment portfolios. So there is a fairly obvious sense in which wealth begets wealth.

But part of this system of inequality of wealth ownership in the United States has to do with something else: the workings of race. The National Urban League publishes an annual report on “The State of Black America.” One of the measures that it tracks is the “wealth gap” — the differential in home ownership between black and white adults. This gap continues to persist, and many leaders in the effort towards achieving equality of opportunity across racial groups point to this structural inequality as a key factor. Here is a very good study on home ownership trends for black and white adults done by George Masnick at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard (2001). The gap in the 1990s fluctuated around 28% — so, for example, in 1988-1998 about 52% of blacks between 45 and 54 were home owners, whereas about 80% of non-Hispanic whites in this age group were homeowners (figure 5). Historical practices of mortgage discrimination against specific neighborhoods influence home ownership rates, as do other business practices associated with the workings of residential segregation. Some of these mechanisms are illustrated in Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue’s The New Suburban History, and Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age provides an absorbing account of how challenging “home ownership” was for professional black families in Detroit in the 1920s.

So what are the remedies for the very high level of wealth inequality that is found in the United States? Wolff focuses on tax remedies, and certainly these need to be a part of the story. But remedying the social obstacles that exist for disadvantaged families to gain property — most fundamentally, disadvantages that derive from the educational opportunities that are offered to children and young people in inner-city neighborhoods — is crucial as well. It seems axiomatic that the greatest enhancement that can be offered to a young person is a good education; and this is true in the question of wealth acquisition no less than the acquisition of other socially desirable things.

American urban unrest

photo: Newark, 1967

Several recent posts have focused on periods of civil unrest in other countries — France and Thailand most recently. The United States has its own history of civil unrest as well; and much of that history involves poverty, race, and cities. So it’s worthwhile taking a look at some of the dynamics and causes of the major urban race riots that have occurred in the United States in the past seventy-five years. Detroit, Newark, Chicago, and Watts stand out as particularly dramatic moments in American urban history of the late 1960s, and it is useful to tease out some of the historical contingencies and large social conditions that produced these periods of strife.

At the crudest level, we can tell a pretty compelling story about why these riots occurred. The facts of racial segregation and intense poverty and restricted opportunities for African-Americans created an environment where urban African-American youth had seething grievances and a sense of little to lose; a dilapidated and depressing housing stock reinforced this sense of isolation, anger, and hopelessness; and specific incidents triggered an outburst of urban violence against property (the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; specific acts of police misconduct; etc.). So structural conditions (racism, segregation, economic inequality, poverty, and limited opportunities) led to a political psychology of grievance, anger, and hopelessness in a large part of the urban population; and it was only a matter of time before a spark would fall into this tinder. Riots were predictable given the structural conditions and the resulting psychology.

But this is a commonsense folk theory of unrest; what do the experts think? Janet Abu-Lughod provides a particularly thoughtful and probing history of this subject in Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Abu-Lughod is a noted urban sociologist (though notably not a student of social contention in the Tilly school), and her approach is comparative and spatial. She wants to identify the similarities and differences that exist across a small number of cases of major race riots. She picks out six riots in three cities (Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles) over a period of about seventy-five years (1919-1992) and employs a method of paired comparisons. Her goal is to achieve three things:

First, I hope to illustrate the changing conditions of urban race relations over time, as these have been affected by internal and international patterns of migration, wars and wartime production demands for labor, legal changes governing housing segregation, and the civil rights movement.

Second, I hope to explain variations in riots in the three largest metropolitan regions by examining differences in their demographic compositions, the spatial distributions of racial and ethnic groups within each city, and the degree and patterns of racial segregation in their unique physical settings.

Third, I hope to demonstrate differences in the ways relevant city government regimes have responded to sequential outbreaks — ways that reflect the distinctive power structures of each city and the prior “social learning” relevant to race relations that evolved in each place. (8)

One of the things that is most original in Abu-Lughod’s treatment is the primacy she gives to the spatial features of urban geography and the geography of racial segregation in the various cities. She believes that spatial characteristics of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles explain important aspects of the six riots. But another original contribution is the emphasis she places on sequence and learning: an uprising later in time takes a somewhat different shape because of things that insurgents and authorities have learned from earlier uprisings. Both insurgents and authorities have “repertoires” of tactics that are updated by prior experiences.

Spatial considerations come into Abu-Lughod’s analysis in several ways: as a source of conflict (over de facto borders between racially defined areas), and a source of logistical difficulties for the authorities when it comes to the challenge of deploying forces to suppress rioters (in Los Angeles, for example). Urban development plans that intrude into black neighborhoods — for example, the expansion of the University of Illinois campus in Chicago — are also identified as a spatial process that provokes racial conflict.

Abu-Lughod draws several general conclusions based on the pairwise comparisons that she has made. One important conclusion concerns policing. She argues that a well-trained, restrained, and disciplined police force is more likely to sustain peace in tumultuous times and less likely to worsen conflicts when they arise (270); whereas undisciplined and violent police forces greatly worsen the degree and duration of conflict. And second, she argues that the cases suggest that cities in which the city administration has taken steps to enhance trust and collaboration with the organizations of disadvantaged populations will be least likely to suffer major race riots. “Where there is ongoing interaction between well-organized protest movements, with leaders capable of articulating specific demands for change, and a responsive local government, the more quickly hostilities can be brought to an end” (270). So there are specific steps that cities can take to attempt to reduce the likelihood of prolonged major race riots.

But these points don’t address the most basic causes of race riots: poverty, segregation, and severe inequalities of opportunity across racial lines. As she points out, the Kerner Commission in 1968 urged the nation to address these inequalities; the Johnson administration undertook to do so; and very, very little progress has been made in the intervening forty years towards greater social justice along these lines. So perhaps her most sweeping and penetrating conclusion has to do with the depth and severity of the problems of race, poverty, and segregation we continue to face in American cities, and the likelihood this creates for future major disturbances.

Given the obdurate persistence of racism in American culture, and the widening divides in the racial/ethnic/class system over the past three decades (attributable to changes in the international division of labor that have reshaped labor demands in the United States, coupled with massive immigration and a generation of neoliberal national policies that have shred the welfare safety net woven in the Great Depression), I am amazed that major urban rebellions have thus far been so constrained. (269)

One thing that this account has not addressed is the element of organizations and leadership. Abu-Lughod presents the riots she treats as if they were simply wholesale reactions of the mass populations of Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, to a pressing set of structures and grievances. And this appears to make these periods of strife as being non-strategic — reactive rather than purposive, expressive rather than political. But it is a key insight of the resource mobilization approach that we need to spend particular effort at discovering the organizational resources that were available to insurgents; the background thought is that uprisings require mobilization and coordination, and that this is impossible without some sort of organization. So were there organizational resources that helped to sustain and spread the urban riots of the 1960s?

Abu-Lughod doesn’t ignore urban activist organizations altogether; for example, she talks about the role of the NAACP and the Urban League in organizing and negotiating skillfully in support of the economic and political interests of African-Americans in New York during periods between major riots. And she refers to the organizational capacity of the Congress of Racial Equality in New York as a substantial asset in the ability of the black community to organize and sustain protests against police brutality in 1964 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But the periods of strife themselves seem to be largely disorganized, in her narrative, and CORE organizers exerted themselves to damp down the violence rather than sustain it. Generally the civil rights organizations appear to have played the role of peace makers rather than insurgents.

A good complement to Abu-Lughod’s analysis is Tom Sugrue’s recent book, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. This is a very careful and detailed treatment of the sustained activism and achievements of major civil rights organizations in the North that were aimed at achieving greater equality for African-Americans. And it gives a very nuanced appreciation of the degree of political sophistication and activism that existed in the urban African-American communities of the north throughout the 1960s. Sugrue documents in great detail the strategies and commitment of organizations such as CORE, NAACP, and the Urban League. But I think Sugrue agrees with the basic view that the rioting itself was not the result of insurgent organization: “There is little evidence that the urban rebellions of the 1960s were planned, coordinated, and controlled. What was most striking about the long hot summers was not their coordination or coherence. Their very spontaneity convinced many leftists that they were manifestations of a popular — if still undeveloped — revolutionary consciousness” (334-35).

If this interpretation is correct (spontaneous rioting without organization through such vehicles as street gangs, underground groups, etc.), then the spatial considerations that Abu-Lughod focuses on really are crucial; our explanations of the spread and persistence of violence in these cities depend on neighborhood-level mobilization alone. And it suggests that American urban riots were somewhat different from insurgency movements in other countries; they are more spontaneous and less organized than the campaigns of the aggrieved mentioned in prior postings (1848 Paris workers, Thai red shirts, student protests in France).

Segregation in France

The mix of race, poverty, and urban space has created intractable social issues in many American cities in the past sixty years. Residential segregation creates a terrible fabric of self-reproducing inequalities between the segregated group and the larger society — inequalities of education, health, employment, and culture. As intractable as this social system of segregation appears to be in the cities of the United States, it may be that the situation in France is even worse. Sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie is interviewed in a recent issue of the Nouvel Obs on the key findings of his recent book, Ghetto urbain: Segregation, violence, pauvrete en France aujourd’hui. The interview makes for absorbing reading.

Lapeyronnie is an expert on urban sociology, poverty, and immigration in France and a frequent observer of the rising urban crisis in France. (I’m deliberately evoking here the title of Tom Sugrue’s book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.) Lapeyronnie’s view is grim: the isolation and despair characteristic of French ghetto and banlieue communities are worsening year after year, and the French state’s promises after the disturbances of 2005 have not been fulfilled. Unemployment, limited educational opportunities, and poverty create an environment in which young people have neither the resources nor the opportunities to improve their social position, and they are largely excluded from the larger French society.

Lapeyronnie offers several important observations. These ghettos are largely populated by immigrant communities — first, second, or third-generation immigrants from North Africa and former French colonies. Racism is a crucial element in the development and evolution of these segregated spaces. As he puts it:

The ghetto is the product of two mechanisms: social and racial segregation and poverty, which enclose people in their neighborhoods, leading to the formation of a veritable counter-society with its own norms, its economy (what one calls the black economy), and even its own political system. … Poor and segregated, feeling ostracized by the Republic and plunged into a veritable political vacuum, they have organized a counter-society which protects them even as they are disadvantaged in relation to the exterior world.

Lapeyronnie makes the point that the development of segregated ghettos is more advanced and more harmful in the smaller cities of France. He describes the situation in these smaller cities as creating an almost total barrier between the ghetto and the surrounding city — an environment where the possibility of economic or social interaction has all but disappeared.

Lapeyronnie notes the role that gender plays in the segregation system. Women of the ghetto can move back and forth — if they accept the “dominant norms” of dress and behavior. And this means the head scarf, in particular. In order to pass across the boundary of ghetto and city, women must adopt the dress of non-Muslim French society. But, as Lapeyronnie points out, this creates a deeply ambiguous position for women, because modest dress and head scarf are all but mandatory within the space of the ghetto. “The veil is interpreted as a sexual symbol, affirmation of a sexual solidarity with Muslim men. It often engenders hostility outside the ghetto while providing protection within the ghetto.” “Here one finds one of the central explanations of the formation of the ghetto … which is organized around the articulation of the race of the men and the sex of the women.”

Another interesting sociological observation concerns the nature of the social networks within and without the ghetto. Lapeyronnie distinguishes between “strong network ties” (liens forts) and weak network ties (liens faibles), and he asserts that social relationships in the ghetto fall in the first category: everyone knows everyone. As a network diagram, this would result in a dense network in which every node is connected to every other node. But Lapeyronnie makes the point that weak networks are a source of strength and innovation in the larger society that is lacking in the ghetto; people can “network” to strangers through a series of connections. So opportunities are widely available — finding a job by passing one’s CV through a series of people, for example. “Strong networks protect people, they are like a cocoon … But they are also a handicap and a weight on each person. Not only is the individual deprived of resources, but many people don’t know a single person outside the neighborhood.” Moreover, this strong network characteristic is very effective at enforcing a group morality (along the lines of Durkheim): “There is a morality and set of norms in the strong network: don’t betray, be faithful to one’s friends, stay together.”

Lapeyronnie concludes the interview with these words:

When a population is placed in a situation of poverty and lives within racial segregation, it returns to very traditional definitions of social roles, notably the roles of family, and on a rigid and often bigoted morality. This is what permits building the strong network.

This is a pretty powerful analysis of the social transformations that are created by segregation, racism, isolation, and poverty — and it doesn’t bode well for social peace in France. Lapeyronnie is describing the development of an extensive “counter-society” that may be more and more important in coming years. The social networks and social relationships that Lapeyronnie describes are a potent basis for social mobilization and new social movements, and there don’t seem to be many pathways towards social progress to which such movements might be directed.