Tag Archives: racism

The strange racism of Martin Hewitt

I’ve been reading these old stories, like Arthur Morrison’s  (1863-1945) Martin Hewitt, Investigator (1894) and it continually strikes me not just how very racist they were, but how varied they are in that. Nothing new there, I know, but it’s crazy reading them all the same. Thought I might start collecting strange racisms, maybe do something article-wise with them at some point because they are not just the narratives that have helped form common-sense understandings of race still existing today, but help show how they have shifted as well as the kind of ‘work’ they do — the exploitations and injustices they have made possible. I’ll just collect them for now maybe, though.

I’ve already started a little — the crazy view of the Chinese as the people of evil genius and immense imperial ambition is so evident in Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, then there are the stupid and slow and lustful Chinese dockworkers of Burke’s Limehouse Nights

Martin Hewitt, Investigator - Arthur MorrisonArthur Morrison was a very different author, a man of the East End’s working classes who wrote powerful, and often nicely twisted stories of working class life there. After Tales of Mean Streets and Child of the Jago (both of which serve as a good counterpoint to Burke), I was looking forward to trying a little of his lighter detective fiction. Morrison lived by his journalism and writing, and was a better hack writer than most. Still, his Martin Hewitt stories follow in the mold of his contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle (who came with plenty of his own racism), complete with private detective and his sidekick who narrates the tales.

All was well, and fairly enjoyable until you reach story VII. ‘The Affair of the Tortoise’. This exposes a whole lot of vile beliefs about Haitians in particular, and probably Black folks in general. These tie in, of course, to the fact that Haiti’s revolution (beginning in 1791) was led by slaves and actually did topple to great extent the colonial and racist power structures. There’s some been written about how this incredible movement and period have been written out of radical history and into savagery, sterling examples of historiography like CLR James for one, Trouillot for another. After reading those, it’s interesting how some of the stereotypes they examine continue to emerge in detective fiction from the other side of the world, like Martin Hewitt, Investigator published in 1894. ‘Funny’ how deductive reasoning based on tiny details so often require prejudices and stereotypes to be true.

“Right! Well, here you are.” Hewitt reached an atlas from his book-shelf. “Now, look here: the biggest island of the lot on this map, barring Cuba, is Hayti. You know as well as I do that the western part of that island is peopled by the black republic of Hayti, and that the country is in a degenerate state of almost unexampled savagery, with a ridiculous show of civilization. There are revolutions all the time; the South American republics are peaceful and prosperous compared to Hayti.

We have here the savage. Hewitt is investigating what they believe is the murder of Haitian named Rameau, who fought with almost everyone else in the boarding house, and who killed the pet tortoise of another boarder when he flung it at his head.  Hence the title.

Martin Hewitt, Investigator - Arthur Morrison

But not everything is as it seems, and this because of the striking physical differences held as racist gospel between Black and white,

First, although there was a good deal of blood on the floor just below where the housemaid had seen Rameau lying, there was none between that place and the door. Now, if the body had been dragged, or even carried, to the door, blood must have become smeared about the floor, or at least there would have been drops, but there were none, and this seemed to hint that the corpse might have come to itself, sat up on the sofa, stanched the wound, and walked out. I reflected at once that Rameau was a full-blooded negro, and that a negro’s head is very nearly invulnerable to anything short of bullets.

Right. For a little more on the difference in skulls between the races, along with some unquestioning insults in everyday language:

“I suppose, then,” Nettings remarked slowly, like a man on whose mind something vast was beginning to dawn, “I suppose—why, hang it, you must have just got up while that fool of a girl was screaming and fainting upstairs, and walked out. They say there’s nothing so hard as a nigger’s skull, and yours has certainly made a fool of me. But, then, somebody must have chopped you over the head; who was it?”

Rameau is a stock-character cross between comedy and cowardice:

“My enemies—my great enemies—enemies politique. I am a great man”—this with a faint revival of vanity amid his fear—”a great man in my countree. Zey have great secret club-societies to kill me—me and my fren’s; and one enemy coming in my rooms does zis—one, two”—he indicated wrist and head—”wiz a choppa.”

Along with chopper-proof skulls we have the old stand-by of lazy and shiftless.

The would-be murderer had plainly prepared for the crime: witness the previous preparation of the paper declaring his revenge, an indication of his pride at having run his enemy to earth at such a distant place as this—although I expect he was only in England by chance, for Haytians are not a persistently energetic race.

At least Hewitt acknowledged he had enough brains to plan a little in advance.

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Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha

Maud MarthaMaud Martha was stunning.

Every line of it was beautiful, thoughtful perfection. You can tell this was written by a poet. When I started reading it those first few pages made me keep putting the book down with a shiver of joy at the language. It is amazing to have two authors, Dybek and Brooks, remind me in just the past couple of weeks what a very visceral, physical pleasure reading can be.

WHAT she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the west sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch; and dandelions. (1)

Yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard. She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.  (2)

This is so much about home and its creation and its effects, but in that the fucked-upness of segregated American cities is omnipresent, and every now and then you glimpse a direct view of the city of Chicago in the background. And the sky.

The school looked solid. Brownish-red brick, dirty cream stone trim. Massive chimney, candid, serious. The sky was gray, but the sun was making little silver promises somewhere up there, hinting. A wind blew. (4)

There were lives in these buildings. Past the tiny lives the children blew. Cramp, inhibition, choke–they did not trouble themselves about these. (5)

How she loved a “hike.” Especially in the evening, for then everything was moody, odd, deliciously threatening, always hunched and ready to close in on you but never doing so. East of Cottage Grove you saw fewer people, and those you did see had, all of them (how strange, thought Maud Martha), white faces.  (9)

On every page I could find you a line to love. But we shall jump ahead to the tautness of Chapter 8 as they wait for Maud Martha’s papa to come home from a visit to try and get an extension on the mortgage to save their home of 14 years.

There was little hope. The Home Owners’ Loan was hard.

HOLC. I have read so much about them in rather more abstract terms. Just as everything this book reflects on poetically is so much more often written about in terms abstract or worthy. Very different from these vivid scenes brought alive through feelings, colours, sounds, smells…

And these things–roaches, and having to be satisfied with the place as it was–were not the only annoyances that had to be reckoned with. She was becoming aware of an oddness in color and sound and smell about her, the color and sound and smell of the kitchenette building. the color was gray, and the smell and sound had taken on a suggestion of the properties of color, and impressed one as gray, too. The sobbings, the frustrations, the small hates, the little pushing-through love, the boredom, that came to her from behind those walls (some of them beaverboard) via speech and scream and sigh–all these were gray. And the smells of various types of sweat, and of bathing and bodily functions (the bathroom was always in use, someone was always in the bathroom) and of fresh or stale love-making, which rushed in thick fumes to your nostril as you walked down the hall, or down the stairs–these were gray.

Organising tenants you see a whole lot of gray — though I don’t know that gray is the right colour for walls yellowed with tobacco smoke and damp and dirt. To me the word of horror was always dingy, that is the word contains all the smells and sounds of these buildings unified by poverty and overworked exhaustion and absentee landlords. I lived in those dingy places a long time, they strip life of its color. They get you down.

But oh, there is still some vibrance in the lives within them. You meet the people who live in the kitchenette building, meet all the hang-ups about shades of blackness and pretensions to class, all the terrible frustrations, the wonderful children whose faces light up like candles, the nameless ones who scream about the house, the two people who really love each other. They are vivid despite the gray.

There are moments of hate, moments of fear. A child being born. A life passing by and it is no one but the world’s fault that the dandelion world of the child should shift to the gray of the kitchenette building and the pressure of parenthood and adult life. Disappointments. Settling. Still finding those moments of beauty, but less often perhaps.

Near the end there is an inspired meditation on segregation and race and violence through Maud Martha’s disgust at cleaning out a chicken — refusing to touch it, hacking at its insides with a knife to do what butchers once did before the war:

And yet the chicken was a sort of person, a respectable individual, with its own kind of dignity. The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy.

When the animal was ready for the oven Maud Martha smacked her lips at the though of her meal. (153)

There is a kind of genius in that. I love that it sits alongside those crystalline lines and images of beauty that open Maud Martha, and are scattered throughout.

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Fu-Manchu: The Yellow Peril in the East End

Sax Rohmer - Fu Manchu The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu (1913) is an extraordinary racist thriller of white fear and desire. While knowing vaguely about the character of Fu-Manchu, I admit I had no idea quite what I was getting into.  It is a singular example of racist rhetoric, one that highlights the power and ancient knowledge of the ‘other’ rather than his stupidity or savage nature, a genius which puts the entire white empire at risk — I found its open racism and mad worldview shocking given its popularity — but I know I shouldn’t have.

It opens with a late night visit to Petrie by his friend Nayland Smith, just returned from Burma. Smith explains the reason for his return:

“A fiend who, unless my calculations are at fault is now in London, and who regularly wars with pleasant weapons of that kind. Petrie, I have traveled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interests of the entire white race, and I honestly believe–though I pray I may be wrong–that its survival depends largely upon the success of my mission.”

Sentences like that are just a bit jaw-dropping. And his mission? To foil the evil Dr Fu-Manchu:

“There is little to fear until we arrive home,” he said calmly. “Afterwards there is much. To continue: This man, whether a fanatic or a duly appointed agent, is, unquestionably, the most malign and formidable personality existing in the known world today. He is a linguist who speaks with almost equal facility in any of the civilized languages, and in most of the barbaric. He is an adept in all the arts and sciences which a great university could teach him. He also is an adept in certain obscure arts and sciences which no university of to-day can teach. He has the brains of any three men of genius. Petrie, he is a mental giant.”

It gets sillier from there:

“But, Smith, this is almost incredible! What perverted genius controls this awful secret movement?”

“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

This explains American and British fears of the yellow peril better than anything else I have read, the crazed inversion of our own desires of empire and domination, our own motives forced upon others and thus excusing all of our cruelties:

“I have only the vaguest idea, Inspector; but he is no ordinary criminal. He is the greatest genius which the powers of evil have put on earth for centuries. He has the backing of a political group whose wealth is enormous, and his mission in Europe is to PAVE THE WAY! Do you follow me? He is the advance-agent of a movement so epoch-making that not one Britisher, and not one American, in fifty thousand has ever dreamed of it.”

It is described as inevitable struggle, a clash of opposites in East and West:

That I moved amid singular happenings, you, who have borne with me thus far, have learned, and that I witnessed many curious scenes; but of the many such scenes in that race-drama wherein Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu-Manchu played the leading parts…

They represent the polar opposites:

A breeze whispered through the leaves; a great wave of exotic perfume swept from the open window towards the curtained
doorway.

It was a breath of the East–that stretched out a yellow hand to the West. It was symbolic of the subtle, intangible power manifested in Dr. Fu-Manchu, as Nayland Smith–lean, agile, bronzed with the suns of Burma, was symbolic of the clean British efficiency which sought to combat the insidious enemy.

The subtle versus the efficient, the scented and floral versus the clean and manly. I could keep writing binaries, but they are devolving fast. Still, they are all here. At least there is enough of some version of respect here to make of this a titanic struggle:

The mere thought that our trifling error of judgment tonight in tarrying a moment too long might mean the victory of Fu-Manchu, might mean the turning of the balance which a wise providence had adjusted between the white and yellow races, was appalling.

Wise providence? English greed for opium and world domination more like. And still we project upon the ‘other’ in a struggle of good and evil in which the two may never cooperate or combine, only fight to the death:

East and West may not intermingle. As a student of world-policies, as a physician, I admitted, could not deny, that truth.

indexWow.

It is only in the bodies of women that there lies a chance of it, a hope of it, but one forbidden. There is certainly desire, but it is a fatal one:

“She is one of the finest weapons in the enemy’s armory, Petrie. But a woman is a two-edged sword, and treacherous. To our great good fortune, she has formed a sudden predilection, characteristically Oriental, for yourself. Oh, you may scoff, but it is evident. She was employed to get this letter placed in my hands. Give it to me.”

Women are used against white men, yet often backfires given women’s innate treachery — even if she loves Petrie now, she will not for long and he knows that she will betray him. But how tragic it will all become before that happens:

Many there are, I doubt not, who will regard the Eastern girl with horror. I ask their forgiveness in that I regarded her quite
differently. No man having seen her could have condemned her unheard. Many, having looked into her lovely eyes, had they found there what I found, must have forgiven her almost any crime.

That she valued human life but little was no matter for wonder. Her nationality–her history–furnished adequate excuse for an attitude not condonable in a European equally cultured.

But indeed let me confess that hers was a nature incomprehensible to me in some respects. The soul of Karamaneh was a closed book to my short-sighted Western eyes. But the body of Karamaneh was exquisite; her beauty of a kind that was a key to the most extravagant rhapsodies of Eastern poets. Her eyes held a challenge wholly Oriental in its appeal; her lips, even in repose, were a taunt. And, herein, East is West and West is East.

Wow again. I don’t even know what that means.

I think of all his cringing hateful infuriating sentences, those must be some of the worst.

But to return to the city, the geographies of race and crime…this struggle has been brought to London, where a small band of devoted servants shall fight on behalf of the white races:

To Smith and me, who knew something of the secret influences at work to overthrow the Indian Empire, to place, it might be, the whole of Europe and America beneath an Eastern rule, it seemed that a great yellow hand was stretched out over London. Doctor Fu-Manchu was a menace to the civilized world. Yet his very existence remained unsuspected by the millions whose fate he sought to command.

Within these racialised logics, there is really only one place where Fu Manchu could go to find his permanent base, the centre of his many operations — the exotic and exoticised East End. I mean, look at the assumptions of the working class docks, even without his presence:

The cabman she had directed to drive to the lower end of the Commercial Road, the neighborhood of the new docks, and the scene of one of our early adventures with Dr. Fu-Manchu. The mantle of dusk had closed about the squalid activity of the East End streets as we neared our destination. Aliens of every shade of color were about us now, emerging from burrow-like alleys into the glare of the lamps upon the main road. In the short space of the drive we had passed from the bright world of the West into the dubious underworld of the East.

Aliens, people of colour, burrows and underworlds. Where better for Fu-Manchu to camouflage himself? This is the secret London, the London sought by the slummers and the journalists, the wealthy come to gawk, to escape, to make themselves feel better through drugs or charity, to assuage desires and discover new ones, to shiver in their proximity to criminality. Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Burke, and Sax Rohmer among them.

It is a fact, singular, but true, that few Londoners know London. Under the guidance of my friend, Nayland Smith, I had learned, since his return from Burma, how there are haunts in the very heart of the metropolis whose existence is unsuspected by all but the few; places unknown even to the ubiquitous copy-hunting pressman.

It is so clear who Petrie (and Rohmer) understands by the term ‘Londoner’ — the working class, the poor and the non-white are forever excluded.

Curious too, that the East End should be the world of the docks, and that Fu-Manchu’s hideouts are always alongside the water, almost as shifting and treacherous in Petrie’s eyes as Karamaneh:

Ten minutes’ steady tramping brought us within sight of the Thames. Smith and I both had noticed how Fu-Manchu’s activities centered always about the London river. Undoubtedly it was his highway, his line of communication, along which he moved his mysterious forces. The opium den off Shadwell Highway, the mansion upstream, at that hour a smoldering shell; now the hulk lying off the marshes. Always he made his headquarters upon the river. It was significant; and even if to-night’s expedition should fail, this was a clew for our future guidance.

***

Another question often put to me was: Where did the Doctor hide during the time that he pursued his operations in London? This is more susceptible of explanation. For a time Nayland Smith supposed, as I did myself, that the opium den adjacent to the old Ratcliff Highway was the Chinaman’s base of operations; later we came to believe that the mansion near Windsor was his hiding-place, and later still, the hulk lying off the downstream flats. But I think I can state with confidence that the spot which he had chosen for his home was neither of these, but the East End riverside building which I was the first to enter.

I’m as fascinated by the shifting views of South London as I am by the East End and those are here too, here we have Brixton as a centre of suburban respectability:

“The address is No.–Cold Harbor Lane,” he reported. “I shall not be able to come along, but you can’t miss it; it’s close by the Brixton Police Station. There’s no family, fortunately; he was quite alone in the world. His case-book isn’t in the American desk, which you’ll find in his sitting-room; it’s in the cupboard in the corner–top shelf. Here are his keys, all intact. I think this is the cupboard key.”

There are other interesting things here and there, like in Conan Doyle you find the ubiquity and legality of cocaine, casual sentences like: “Sir Crichton was addicted to cocaine…” Then there are the similarities this bears to some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the way this is a more noble version of the prurience and violence of the Chinatown of Limehouse Nights. It’s pretty distressing that these were best-selling novels, inspired numbers of films, have entered fully into popular British and American culture. More distressing to untangle how they have shaped it…

I am almost curious to read the latest reboot of the Fu-Manchu novels by William Patrick Maynard, written in the past few years. See how much this shit has changed.

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Charleston and Charleston and Charleston

Sitting here trying to work and everywhere is full of the Charleston killing, numberless posts trying to redefine and claim and contextualise, pourings out  of anger, grief, fear. Call it terrorism, call it a massacre, how dare you call it the #CharlestonKilling, why don’t you say #JeSuisCharleston (but that makes no sense to me because I sure as hell wasn’t Charlie Hebdo and that media outpouring got ugly real fast). No, I don’t like this frenzy because in a way it just represents all of these emotions and despair and no one knows what to do. So we fight over words.

At our best, we remember and grieve for those who have died and all the people who loved them.

I too despair over the scourings of media except for the honest words of Jon Stewart from the Daily Show. He sums it up I think. Even if we do look into the abyss of race in America — though I think it needs to be more specific to the abyss of white violence, white privilege, white supremacy — even if we look into that abyss we won’t do jack shit. And that’s what he can’t get his head around.

I can’t either.

I just sit here full of grief and rage and it feels as though there is nothing I can do.

Like everyone else I’m just writing something, talking something to draw the poison out because no, I am not all right.

Seems like we have been battered over the head, grief upwelling for so many humiliated, hurt, jailed, beaten, murdered and driven to suicide. Cops keep doing what they do. Vigilantes keep doing what they do. Fox just talks the way it always talks, shoveling their same old shit, the rest of the major news outlets straggling in their wake along the spectrum of denial. Meanwhile poverty, segregation, slum housing, shitty schools, no health care, no healthy food, no jobs, no hope — all these things are killing people of colour even faster than white people are killing them.

Structural, systemic racism that continuously erupts in violence. That’s what we got.

Something has to give, to change, and I just don’t see what it will be. I don’t see white folks giving up a damn thing, even attempting to try and deal with what we have become, much less succeeding. Probably because it’s so wrapped up in all that we were, centuries of covering up exploitation and hatred and land-grabbing and slavery and genocide. Probably because all that history is present with us still, in things we believe but especially in terms of who has wealth and privilege and who does not, and just what exactly whites (and people who identify with them of whatever colour because this shit is real complex) are prepared to do to protect that. We have not equipped ourselves to deal with that, because that will take a whole lot of hard work involving skills and know-how. But the fury directed at those schools who are doing anything to equip those skills or talk about what this country is actually founded on — well.

And then there’s the fact that South Carolina still flies the confederate flag…I don’t even…I don’t even have words for that. Though of course, maybe it’s better all out in the open and not hidden behind liberal words just as intent on preserving power and privilege. But no, actually, take down the damn flag.

I sit here afraid for so many people I love in the U.S. Part of me feels that’s a little crazy, to have this fear in my stomach. But I look at this news and I know it isn’t.

Americanah

20939941I quite loved Americanah — this story of Ifemelu and Obinze, funny that the fact that it has become a best seller gives me a little more respect for people in general and possibly also the literary establishment. Funny also that my love of it made me realise what a wonderful book it is, as so much of the dramatic arc is centered on relationships in a difficult world and that is not usually something that will grip my attention.

I like my relationships solid and healthy and consisting of mutual respect and taking care of each other — I like them as things I don’t have to think too much about but can just trust. I hate drama in them. I don’t like to spend time talking through them or thinking about them or knowing about how other people do it (or fail to). So I kept wanting an element of the fantastical, a crime, I kept bumping into my own limitations. But I loved this book all the same.

Of course, it is about lots of other things, race and class and loneliness and immigration and shame and the things we do for money and the things that break us and how we heal those breaks or fail to, how we name our integrity and keep it, what we do when it slips. It is about love. It is about change. About being brave.

There was lots to think about, I loved the stories of Nigeria, of the US East Coast, but perhaps because I live in London now, am a little more removed from everything that I was in the US, I can’t help but quote these:

In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat, and then in the afternoon a blue-grey dusk descended, and the Victorian buildings all wore a mournful air. In those first weeks, the cold startled Obinze with its weightless menace, drying his nostrils, deepening his anxieties, making him urinate too often….Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station…and watch the people brushing past him. they walked so quickly these people, as though they had an urgent destination, a purpose to their lives, while he did not. His eyes would follow them, with a lost longing, and he would think: You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are. (227)

This too rings so true, breaks my heart:

The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain. (258)

I also loved Ifemelu’s blog posts on race in the U.S., they were both funny and perceptive, a bit like Black Girl Dangerous:

Job Vacancy in America — National Arbiter in Chief of “Who is Racist”

Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist…Or maybe it’s time to scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute. (315)

This quote is just because I know someone like this:

There were people who were born with an inability to be tangled up in dark emotions, in complications, and Iloba was one of them. For such people, Obinze felt both admiration and boredom (249).

My disinterest in complicated relationships has nothing to do with lack of emotions, and this made me smile as I feel the same.

Anyway. I am looking forward to everything else she has written.

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Albert Memmi on Racism

565510([1982] 1999) University of Minnesota Press
(Original review from 14 June, 2013)

A brilliant, short and deceptively simple exposition on the nature of racism and what anti-racist struggle should look like. It was written by Albert Memmi, a novelist and intellectual who participated in the Tunisian struggle for independence from France but was forced to leave his home country in 1956 after their victory, suspect due to his studies in France and his Jewish heritage. An outsider, neither Arab nor French, he yet remains committed to struggle and thus I think, to a reduction of complexity, a focus on essence and concrete ideas about how change can happen. This is a treasure really, and a book I wish I had read long ago, during my first attempt to look at race and racism intellectually rather than a few years down the line.

It makes me want to re-read everything in its light as there is so much I love about it but I worry about this very absence of complexity. But I think its structure is sound, and so much else I’ve read simply fills in details and particularities, gives it nuance and shading.

A common core to everything of course, is that racism is not based on any fundamental characteristics of the group discriminated against, it is not rational in that way, it is culturally constructed but it is a practical construction, and thus often contradictory. Memmi writes:

The thinkers and militants rely on logic and reasoning because they believe they are dealing with an opposing logic and reasoning. But racism is not simply of the order of reason; its real meaning does not reside in its apparent coherence. It is a discourse, at once both functional and naïve, that is called forth and maintained, in its essence and its goals, by something other that itself.

What is that other reason? ‘Whatever its little detours may be, ultimately, the goal of racism is dominance’. [55]

I like his distinction between his own line of thought and Marxism – recognising the great (and increasing) diversity in Marxist thinking

An objection that Marxism might raise, should perhaps be addressed. For most Marxists, the diversity of racism’s social advantages is a deception, in the strong sense of the term. “Man” is, essentially, an economic animal, driven principally by economic needs. The rest is diversion, ruse, and ideology. In these terms, racism is fundamentally an economic weapon. Racist discourse becomes an alibi disguising an interminable appropriation of natural resources and, more to the point, the “exploitation of man by man.” According to the familiar formula “economics is the ultimate motor of history.”

I am in partial agreement with the Marxists here. They are right to suspect that racism seeks another end, behind all its disparagements and attacks. I am quite convinced that there are usually two levels to a discourse — an explicit content and a hidden meaning. …

The Marxists are not wrong, either, in suspecting contemporary racism of economic motivation. …

My agreement with Marxists ends there. I think they are wrong to think that privilege always reduces itself to economic advantage–even as “ultimate determinant,” according to their customary expression. only [61] … Human reality is more complex; pne could not know for certain what unique factor governs all the rest, nor could one know even if such a thing exists. Human needs are multiple, even if they are not endlessly multiplied. Priorities are variable and fluid. The need for security or the need for love, is often as important as the need for nourishment. In short, one might adopt a racist stance for many different reasons, and not simply for calculable economic return — even though, for all, the mechanism whereby those gains are achieved may be the same. [62]

Thus Memmi demands that we always look for the work that racism does. This is one way it can work:

To exteriorize evil by incarnating it in another separates it from society and renders it less threatening. It can be manipulated, managed, destroyed by fire. The common denominator must be understood: fire purifies all, including ourselves … but only by burning the other. That is where it is most economical. [64]

And of course, one of its foundations: colonialism:

The boundary between colonization and premeditated murder is created and sustained by the needs of the colonizer. Without that, it reduces to death and genocide. For example, the first European settlers in the Americas decimated the Indians because they did not have a way of using them …

This is why, to understand any given form of racism, one must inquire into what benefit a particular racist group gains over the particular group they have picked as a target, as their prey. That is, beyond general mechanisms, what does the anti-Semite seek in anti-Semitism, the masculinist man through masculinism, the colonialist through colonization? And what is each of them looking for at any particular historical moment? [70]

This is the key social and structural foundation of racism. But Memmi also looks at how it works and functions on an individual level, and how this interacts with the larger collective feeling. He recognises within human beings an innate fear and distrust of difference, and sees racism as only one aspect of this larger heterophobia, one based on some kind of visible difference such as skin colour or something such as the shape of the nose. It is not intellectual, but lived, and he argues:

It is easier to contest an argument than an emotion; it is much easier to refute a discourse than an experience. That racism finds its genesis and its nourishment in ordinary experience should not be reassuring. On the contrary, its opacity and tenacity are enhanced by the banality of its sources. [22]

Thus, it is natural to notice difference, people then assign values to these differences, ‘Ultimately, one becomes racist only with the inclusion of the third point: the deployment of a difference to denigrate the other, to the end of gaining [37] privilege or benefit through stigmatization.’ This is a tricky point for me, this point of where exactly racism starts. This is where I need to think more about it. But it seems that this might be a good start towards being able to think through how difference works, and how differences can work together. We need to become a society that can thrive in difference, can celebrate it, while also eradicating racism. It reminded me of an essay by Stuart Hall contrasting the essentialisms of the 1960s and 70s struggles and Black Power, which really needed to embrace difference, yet through embracing difference have seemed to lose something of their strength and power for resistance against racism that we need to find and build in another way.

That is something that needs building collectively I think, but I like this line of initial thought:

In effect, the real stakes against racism, which must also inform anti-racism, do not concern difference itself but the use of difference as a weapon against its victim, to the advantage of the victimizer. [51]

At the end, after iteration and iteration, he comes to his clear definition of racism:

Racism is a generalizing definition and valuation of differences, whether real or imaginary, to the advantage of the one defining and deploying them, and to the detriment of the on subjected to that act of definition, whose purpose is to justify (social or physical) hostility and assault. [100]

He also manages to see this as a pyramid, not black and white but multicultural – he uses the phrase of ‘pyramid of tyrannies’ [106] where groups jostle for position always setting themselves above the group beneath them.

So in a nutshell slightly larger than the definition (the way this book always seems to circle around and expand upon the essences of the thing):

Though racism has some roots in a person’s emotional structure and sensibilities, its basic formulation is social. Racism is a cultural discourse that surrounds each person from childhood on, in the air one breathes, in parental advice and thinking, in one’s cultural rituals. One is exposed to it in school, in the streets and the newspapers, even in the writings of people one is supposed to admire and who might otherwise be admirable… [112]

Thus, racism is always both a discourse and an action; it is a discourse that prepares an action, and an action that legitimates itself through a discourse. [142]

Racism is a form of war. And there we glimpse its real face behind all of its shadowy disguises. Up to now, we have disregarded the innateness of agressivity. We can no longer afford to do that if we wish to look to the future. [144]

And even better, it contains some thinking of what must be done in a beautiful section so lacking in so many academic works — Practical lessons:

1. First and foremost, we must be conscious of racism, not just in others but in ourselves, individually and collectively. [146]
What is needed is an exercise of empathy, which means training ourselves in the difficult task of participating in the other. [147]

2. The struggle against racism requires a continual pedagogy, from infancy to death. [149]
Since the apprehension on real or imagined evil is one of the ingredients of aggressiveness, anything that diminishes fear will have a beneficial effect.

3. The core of all teaching is an individual relation to the student, even when the teaching occurs in large groups. But teaching must also address itself to the social, to the collective, and that is the role of politics. Politics is a collective form of behaviour in the name of certain values and in view of greater efficacy. [151]

The struggle against racism coincides, at least in part, with the struggle against all oppressions. There will always be the necessity for struggle. Racism is a perverted sentiment that is the result, the expression, and the matrix of real situations that must be changed if it is to be brought to an end. In order for racism to disappear, it will be necessary that the oppressed cease to be oppressed, that is, recognised as the convenient victim, as the incarnation of an image the [154] oppressor had invented. But it will also be necessary that the oppressor cease to be an oppressor, cease to require that others be under his thumb… [155]

The political fight must be planned around a separate analysis of each context. Who benefits from the arguments justifying racism? What privilege or act of aggression does it prepare for or conceal? Then, if we really want to get at racism, we must tackle this concrete relationship, this implicit or explicit oppression [182]

Is this how I understand politics? I’m not sure? But I think this is a good way to start looking at racism in any given society with an aim to eradicate it.

The final paragraph of this short book I found surprisingly provocative. It summarises much of what has come before, but is perhaps at Memmi’s most clear in terms of human nature and what we are really up against. He writes

How is one to struggle effectively against racism? Moral indignation and attempts at persuasion have shown themselves to be clearly insufficient. One must take full account of racism’s roots in fear, in financial insecurity, in economic avarice, which are in humans the sources of aggressivity and a tendency toward domination. One must struggle against such aggressions and dominations, and prevent them. It is racism that is natural and anti-racism that is not; anti-racism can only be something that is acquired, as all that is cultural is acquired, at the end of long and arduous struggles, which are never free from the possibility of being reversed. [196]

Is racism natural, anti-racism unnatural? I’ve been thinking about that, I’m still not sure of where I stand. But unquestionably, the way in which our society has developed and is structured, particularly in the United States which is where I grew up, and Britain where I live, racism is in the very air we breathe. But like Gilroy in his work on Post-Colonial Melancholia, I see great hope also – in London much more than anywhere I have lived. Just walking around the street you can see the lines of race breaking down in beautiful ways, the rise of a working class conviviality where mixed race couples almost seem to be the rule and so much daily life is shared. The splits are still there and racism is still there, but what I see makes me believe we can actually get past it in the future, a different world is possible. This seems a most organic thing the way it is happening, one that seems to show racism is perhaps not so natural a thing. But I wonder if it could be reversed, if one group could suddenly be rejected the way a new Tunisia rejected some of its freedom fighters…

This is a book to come back to more than once, I feel this is something of a jumble of thoughts that need a lot more going through, particularly in application. But I love that intellectually I can see where to apply them in my work, I can see how, and I can see that it will improve what I do…

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The Broken Heart of Ferguson

I have few words for Ferguson, for yet another Black kid shot and killed and no justice for the killing. I sit and think about what I should say, and there is so much to say, but mostly it just hurts my stomach and my heart, and the screen blurs. Still, I have to say something.

At the centre of this is a young life lost to us. Someone here who lived and breathed and laughed and dreamed, and who is not here any longer. Whose last moments were of pain and fear. Surrounding that terrible new wound of an absence is the pain of families and friends and those who loved him. That pain will stretch forever into the future. We never stop mourning the loss of those we love. Surrounding that, the pain of the wider community, the reawakened trauma of all other families who have survived these same circumstances around the world, and the pain belonging to all of us who grieve. There is also an ever deepening fear among youth that they could be killed at any time, and among parents that they could lose their children whenever they leave their homes. And of course, there is an intense anger. Because no one should suffer this ever. Because things like this should never happen. Because if this does happen, our society needs to take steps to find justice and do whatever it can to ensure it does not happen again. Instead it does worse than nothing — it blames the dead.

Because all of this intense pain and suffering that marks one grouping of reactions to this murder sits encompassed within a larger, and much whiter group of people across the nation that does not value Black life, does not value Black children, does not see these children as its own to love and protect and cherish. Instead it fears them, it desires protection from them, and it refuses to convict those who kill them in the name of that defense. It is a tragic split that is eating away at the U.S., that perhaps has already destroyed it because this goes so far back. My only hope is in the communities coming together to stop this, end this, change this. People bridging old boundaries and fears. A growing dialogue about just how bad things are and how things have to change. That is the only way that hope lies for everyone.

But so many lives have been lost. It has been good, actually, to go through this, to share this, through my social media community. There was this posted, that made me cry:

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Mamie Till, summer 1955. Michael Brown Sr, summer 2014. How do you console the inconsolable? Photograph: Chicago Sun-Times via AP (left); Richard Perry / AFP / Getty (right)

I have gone through the violent death of a child with one family I love well, and a piece of my heart was literally burned away by their grief, and the sound of Maria screaming over his grave will echo forever in my ears. I hear it every time a child is killed.

More intellectually, there is James Baldwin to educate about the measure of justice:

Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

More from Baldwin on Martin Luther King’s assassination is here from Esquire Magazine, from 1968 and I can’t believe we’re still in the same place. This encapsulates what is happening now:

Q. How can we get the black people to cool it?

James Baldwin: It is not for us to cool it.

Q. But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?

James Baldwin: No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.

There’s this from the Howard Zinn page, just a handful of collected stories of the many Black men who have been shot in cold blood, whose murderers were known, and where justice has still been denied:

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The below stories are from the Onion.

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That’s from before the decision, because all of us were afraid this would happen given our country’s track record over several hundred years. This headline could not state better how many of us feel I think:

Nation Doesn’t Know If It Can Take Another Bullshit Speech About Healing

And this breaks my heart all over again, because it is all true:

Tips For Being An Unarmed Black Teen

With riots raging in Ferguson, MO following the shooting death by police of an unarmed African-American youth, the nation has turned its eyes toward social injustice and the continuing crisis of race relations. Here are The Onion’s tips for being an unarmed black teen in America:

  • Shy away from dangerous, heavily policed areas.
  • Avoid swaggering or any other confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated.
  • Be sure not to pick up any object that could be perceived by a police officer as a firearm, such as a cell phone, a food item, or nothing.
  • Explain in clear and logical terms that you do not enjoy being shot, and would prefer that it not happen.
  • Don’t let society stereotype you as a petty criminal. Remember that you can be seen as so much more, from an armed robbery suspect, to a rape suspect, to a murder suspect.
  • Try to see it from a police officer’s point of view: You may be unarmed, but you’re also black.
  • Avoid wearing clothing associated with the gang lifestyle, such as shirts and pants.
  • Revel in the fact that by simply existing, you exert a threatening presence over the nation’s police force.
  • Be as polite and straightforward as possible when police officers are kicking the shit out of you.

I’m noticing more and more that the Onion can no longer practice satire, because our society has reached the point where satire is impossible. These are literally the conversations my friends are being forced to have with their children. It breaks my heart. Just like being here, in London, through all this. Massive protests are happening all over the U.S., including my friends taking the streets back in L.A. I am so proud. What else is there to do when nothing else is creating change? I am also proud of the movement coming out of this, the demands as they are being developed by Ferguson protestors and the invitation to comment and contribute to this struggle that affects all of us, but people of colour as the most vulnerable to institutional violence most. I am proud to follow their lead, wherever they choose to take this fight. Take a look, comment, support. They are:
Demand #1 — Political Accountability for the Death of Michael Brown, Jr.

Demand #2 — Special Prosecutor for All Deadly Force Cases

Demand #3 — Police Held Accountable for Use of Deadly Force

Demand #4 — End Overpolicing and the Criminalization of Poverty

Demand #5 — Representative Police Force and Intentional Officer Training

Demand #6 — End Funding for Discriminatory Police Forces

Demand #7 — Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Structural and Systemic Inequalities in Missouri

Demand #8 — The Right to Protest

Here in London we at least were able to show solidarity and thankfully made the BBC news to do so, to send as much support from one city to another, one people to another. Hopefully put just a little more international pressure on the federal government to step in. Sadly, our nations are too connected in the ways Black men are killed and justice never comes, and changes are desperately needed in both places.

One of the most powerful things I’ve seen has been this collection of artwork emerging over twitter from Shirin Barghi @shebe86, the last words of Black people shot dead in recent years. Their names are so familiar, and they are only some among many: Kendrec McDade, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Kimani Gray, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin. In the UK it is Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Smiley Culture, Stephen Lawrence, again among too too many others. Carole Duggan spoke at the London protest, and it struck me when she said that we will be fighting injustice for the rest of our lives. So be it. This needs to end, and we all need to be part of ending it.Bvhs1O6IcAAMLe0.jpg_large

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Racist Real Estate Text Books of an Earlier Era

Stanley McMichael. Ugh. Though if you want a vintage encapsulation of how subdividers worked in the 1930s-50s and probably after through racist real estate text books, hurrah. This is an extremely detailed nuts and bolts handbook for developers creating subdivisions with occasional chapters by other experts in the field. It contains check-lists for getting things through planning, sample contracts and deeds, detailed explanations of how and what to build and what creates value. It opens like this however:

‘POSSESSION AND USE of land, since the very dawn of human history, has been the most interesting and important business pursuit of mankind. Biblical history, the oldest written record of human events, is replete with real estate transactions and there is scarcely a book in the Old Testament in which reference is not made to land and its possession.

Adam was the first to be given possession of land, subject, however, to certain restrictions. Through the reported connivance of his co-tenant, Eve, these restrictions were broken and the first eviction occurred, for God banished them from the Garden of Eden. Adam had been given no deed to the land and not even a one dollar consideration was on record as having been paid. Indeed, the first real estate transaction was actually a conditional lease in perpetuity, contingent upon observance of certain covenants. Violation of one of these covenants led, subsequently, to a long series of litigations, which have been responsible for more clogged legal docket than any other phase of human behavior. [7]

From Adam it moves along to other old testament figures, then jumps quickly to George Washington before reaching the builders of today. Both extraordinary and vomitous, I confess. But the reason for it is because for all of its focus on the how-to of subdividing and development, this book recognises that ‘The place for social control of land to start is through the subdivider himself‘. Which is why we should care about it, and read rubbish like this. And this is essentially a manual for building a divided, unequal and bigoted society really, representing the leading theory of the time as pushed by the National Real Estate Board, the Federal Housing Adminstration and multiple others in the field.

First you have to split people up by class

The subdivider knows that “birds of a feather flock together.” It is a wise assumption and consequently there must be a variety of allotment properties, possessing definite social grades and distinctions to fit into community life. The location and character of the land to be subdivided usually suggest the class of buyers that will be most readily attracted and accommodated. [21]

and develop accordingly:

While expensive pavements, curbs, and sidewalks go well with the higher classes of development they are not so necessary in most allotments where workingmen aim to make their homes.

Of course it celebrates the suburbs, you develop low density for automobiles, separate residential from commercial. They are designing neighborhoods for people whose top 3 out of 4 reasons for buying a home they believe are about status:

Among the motives that cause buyers to acquire subdivision property are:

(1) Desire to own a home
(2) Desire to “put up a front”
(3) Ambition to outshine his neighbors by living in a better district
(4) Imitation-a “follow the leader” impulse, caused by seeing his friends move into better neighborhoods

Thus the primary goals of such an individual when choosing his (and it is of course, a him)subdivision are protection

The purchaser who buys a lot-particularly for a home-reasonably expects certain benefits to accrue, among which are these: that the restrictions will establish a district in which future improvements will conform to minimum standards as to cost, character, and location thereof; that he will be protected against the possibility of undesirable neighbors; that the restrictions are designed to accomplish the complete and economic use of the tract …

A protection which is far more important than any other larger sense of public feeling or obligation, thus quite a lot of time is spent in looking at how best to protect him, and you have to really appreciate the candour and honesty of the old days:

zoning restrictions, to be valid, must be substantially related to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare. They must operate uniformly for the general public welfare; they cannot be created for the benefit of any particular group, nor discriminate against another. Furthermore, “since the police power cannot be invoked by purely esthetic considerations, zoning ordinances merely seeking to promote or protect the beautiful, or to preserve the appearance of the neighborhood, are unauthorized.”

Deed restrictions, on the other hand, may be imposed in any manner and for any purpose that will best serve the desire of the subdivider and of the lot owners. In contrast to zoning ordinances, such restrictions need not necessarily promote public health, safety, morals, or general welfare of the public-they may be intended to create a particular character of neighborhood desirable only to the subdivider or the tract owners, and may be based upon “purely esthetic considerations.” They may be uneconomic, discriminatory, and utterly unsuited for the character of community development which should be sought; but they are, nevertheless, valid contract obligations which may be enforced [181]

The book has three chapters devoted to restrictions, a full chapter to race restrictions. Can they still be enforced? McMichael writes:

Chief Justice Vinson, who wrote the decisions covering the two cases, declared that the application of restrictive clauses to the sale of real estate violates the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but he further definitely specified that it “erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful.” This means, it is generally conceded, that two persons can make a contract that will be binding between them but it cannot be enforced against all comers. [202]

Given:

‘That the entry of non-Caucasians into districts where distinctly Caucasian residents live tends to depress real estate values is agreed to by practically all real estate subdividers and students of city life and growth. Infiltration at the outset may be slow, but once the trend is established, values start to drop, until properties can be purchased at discounts of from 50 to 75 per cent.’

yet non-Caucasians are going to keep moving into cities, McMichael asks the key question,

‘What remedy will solve this tremendous problem and protect the interests of subdividers, as well as the owners of property in selective sections of our great cities? [204]’

He quotes the full address of the president of the California Real Estate Association stating their reasons for pushing an amendment to the constitution giving owners the ‘right’ to discriminate, grandfathered of course. Then gives another little gem from Glendale real estate expert, which is worth quoting in full as McMichael does

The president of a real estate board can arrange for a meeting of a small group of persons interested in helping to solve this problem locally. To this meeting invite persons representing each of such groups as: the real estate board, real estate brokers not members of [208] the board, the local lending agencies, the chamber of commerce, the merchants association, and the planning commission. At this meeting the problem can be discussed and a general planning committee can be appointed to work out a long-range plan whereby certain portions of the community will be designated, and agreed upon by those interested, as most suitable for the residence of nonwhites, a location where they and their children would be more likely to be contented and happy than in an all-white neighborhood.
After this general committee makes a careful study of the problem, it should report its findings with recommendations to the original group, who, in turn, should report back to their various groups, each reporting suggestions or recommendations as to what can be done by his organization to help further the general plan. Part of the program should be to develop a “sales talk” setting forth the advantages which would accrue to the nonwhites by having their own neighborhoods apart from the all-white sections.

In cities where certain races predominate in some neighborhoods, especially when it appears that the residents are more contented among people of their own race, the program should cover that situation as well as the general segregation of whites and nonwhites.

The value of real estate depends upon its salability, or marketability. Marketability depends largely upon desirability. Maximum desirability of residential property depends importantly upon the neighbors being harmonious. For this reason, racial segregations are often advisable because persons of the same race have a tendency to possess similar tastes, traits and tendencies which encourage the harmonious relationships so important in making a neighborhood a desirable place in which to live.

there are some humerous moments of course, when you suddenly realise that hot-dog stands could cause ruin to residential property values, but really this is just a long explanation of so much of what is wrong with America, complete with sample residential restrictions and articles of incorporation for Homeowner Associations, their best bets for keeping undesirables out.

[McMichael, Stanley L. 1949. Real Estate Subdivisions. Prentice-Hall.]

Freund’s Colored Property

Colored PropertyColored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America starts with a simple question about white people in Detroit within a concrete period: the time between the formation of two distinct white mobs coming together around the prospect of sharing their neighbohood with a stranger of colour – the first in 1925 (the infamous Sweet case on Garland street) and the second in 1963 on Kendal Street.

In short, we know that between the 1920s and 1960s both the geographical and intellectual settings for white homeowner vigilantism had clearly changed. The mob that descended upon Kendal Street represented a new generation of white resistance to racial integration–ethnically more inclusive, predominantly home-owning and suburban. And postwar whites organized to maintain the color line at a time when it was impolitic, at best, to announce one’s racism out loud. Nonetheless, the similarities between the Garland and Kendal Street episodes, and the apparent continuity of white hostility to integrated neighborhoods, raise a fundamental question that this study seeks to answer: If most northern whites had disavowed racism and supported the principle of racial equality, why did so many continue to oppose residential integration? What motivated postwar whites to exclude black people from their neighborhoods? [5]

So it looks at the articulation of changing ideas of race and changing patterns of property ownership and the private and public policies that shaped these.

Most commentators treat white racism as something unchanging and as conceptually separable from other variables that fuel conflict between groups (including racial groups). Scholars generally portray white racism as a static, though ill-defined, sentiment, an irrational and misguided antipathy toward nonwhites. … Largely missing from this important scholarship is an investigation of how whites’ racial thinking itself changed during the years that the United States became a predominantly suburban and home-owning nation. Like many studies of the postwar metropolis, this book argues that race did matter- that whites’ racial views and preferences continued to shape struggles over housing and neighborhoods in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. But unlike most studies, it argues that whites’ ideas about race were undergoing a fundamental transformation during these years. It explores an important facet of that transformation, by showing how whites grew deeply invested in new ideas about the relationship between race and property. And it argues that this new racial thinking was decisively shaped by the powerful new institutions and private practices that fueled postwar suburban growth while also successfully excluding most black people from its benefits. Rather than describe how other variables interacted with a presumably static white racism, I argue that white identity and white racism were being remade and that these changes were inextricably linked to a revolution in metropolitan political economy.

It’s quite an interesting, and exceedingly pursuasive argument about racial formation

As whites abandoned theories about biological difference and hierarchy, they embraced the argument that racial minorities simply threatened white-owned property. This shift occurred as a majority of whites became property owners for the first time, and as the politics that facilitated this process encouraged whites to view property and property ownership through a powerful but distorted racial lens. New ideas about race were largely born in and sustained by the politics of metropolitan change itself. [12]

This revolution in the metropolitan political economy is extensively documented here:

the huge influence of the real estate industry and the open racism of early theories about zoning

The most enduring legacy of developers’ involvement was zoning’s new focus on protecting the value of residential property. Originally framed as a panacea for a wide range of practical urban problems, by the mid- l910s zoning was portrayed in NCCP sessions primarily as a tool for shoring up real estate markets, especially for “high class” residential subdivisions.

– the community builders and huge expansion of the suburbs incorporating racial covenants and discriminatory zoning — there is not so much on covenants but

Most studies treat zoning ordinances and racially restrictive covenants as discrete if sometimes complementary legal instruments of exclusion because zoning law addresses the right of public bodies to regulate the uses of privately owned property, whereas covenant law addresses the right of private persons to regulate uses of their own property. Zoning ordinances established and defined public powers, while covenants governed interactions between private individuals.86
Largely unexamined, as a result, are the ways that zoning and racial covenants shared an intellectual, cultural, and even legal provenance, a shared history documented by the courts’ defense of both. [92]

-the rise in local incorporation of suburbs in order to implement restrictive zoning
-the various government programs which transformed the property market while promoting the myth that they were doing nothing of the kind…Freund argues that broadly speaking, the federal government intervened in three ways

1. ‘federal initiatives and policies fueled the resegregation of the nation’s metropolitan regions by race and by wealth.’

2. ‘state interventions helped popularize a new rationale for the exclusion of minorities from the fast-growing suburbs. Through its involvement in both zoning and mortgage politics, the federal government put considerable force behind the theory that racial segregation was driven not by white racism but by economic necessity, that exclusion was a “market imperative,” required solely by the principles of land-use science. This argument was not new to the postwar era. But federal involvement made it constitutive of a new metropolitan political economy’

3. ‘federal interventions were instrumental in popularizing a powerful and quite paradoxical myth: that neither suburban growth nor new patterns of racial inequality owed anything to the state’s efforts. The federal government insisted that the new metropolitan order was a product of unregulated free-market activity. [33]’

What I found most interesting (and struggled the most with as well, as I can’t quite get my head around the mortgage stuff)

Still most commentators understate the extent of federal subsidy and the depth of the federal role in shaping the private market for housing, because they focus almost exclusively on FHA and VA operations and because they do not examine how selective credit policy transformed the way that wealth in housing is generated in the modern United States. The FHA and VA worked in tandem with other powerful programs that subsidized and regulated the conventional mortgage market (for home loans not covered by FHA or VA insurance) and virtually created a secondary mortgage market (enabling investors to trade home finance debt like other securities). Taken together, this broad range of federal initiatives did more than shore up a struggling market for housing finance. It created a new kind of mortgage market and a new kind of mortgage industry, which together issued more credit, and thus produced far more wealth than their predecessors. These chapters situate federal mortgage policy within a much larger revolution in U.S. money and credit markets, demonstrating that postwar suburbanization was part and parcel of a fundamental transformation in the mechanics of American capitalism.

And so, to recap in terms of how this affected people of colour in the U.S.

Because the programs that subsidized the mortgage market systematically excluded racial minorities, suburban growth and its corollary prosperity were not just state-managed but also inherently discriminatory. Federal housing policies did not merely “embrace … the discriminatory attitudes of the marketplace,” as the FHA’s critics have long argued. Selective credit operations created a new kind of discriminatory marketplace.52

This structural transformation was accompanied by a change in national housing politics, an ideological change of equal importance. State involvement in the private housing sector helped popularize a mythical story about the mortgage revolution and suburban racial exclusion. Supporters of federal intervention insisted that market forces alone were spurring suburban growth and that it was these same impersonal forces that required the exclusion of minorities.

There follows the case studies on Detroit neighborhoods, which certainly bear out the theory above.

If I have any critique of Colored Property, it’s that I think with some editing it could have lost a lot of the bulk that made it so much work to get through. It felt like a number of things were repeated or overly detailed, which might explain why it doesn’t seem to be seen as the pivotal book I really think it is in terms of connecting the formation of ideas of race with the development of property markets and the geographical consolidation of homes and wealth in the U.S.

What is largely missing from this story though? The struggle of African Americans to escape the Black belt, to get access to resources, to fight discrimination, to face black mobs, to build their own houses, realty organisations, banks…

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Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis

Sugrue - The Origins of the Urban CrisisThomas Sugrue (2005) University of Princeton Press

Stunning really, searing and beautifully thorough research on race, political economy and the urban fabric of Detroit.

He engages with some central questions: what the hell happened to rust belt cities, how did they turn from industrial centers to economic backwaters, how did the ghetto form, how did segregation and racism persist? He then answers these questions, in the process knocking the almost the entire body of literature on the ‘underclass’ out of the ballpark. He does build on those that contained some structural analysis, but looks at a multiplicity of structural forces rather than just one or two (like deindustrialization or racism) and also follows a more historical approach, seeing the origins of the urban crisis in the 1940s and 50s. He does not avoid the question of agency — and there is so much in here about grassroots action — but paraphrases Marx when he says “Economic and racial inequality constrain individual and family choices. They set the limits of human agency. Within the bounds of the possible, individuals and families resist, adapt, or succumb.” His main thesis:

Detroit’s postwar urban crisis emerged as the consequence of two of the most important, interrelated, and unresolved problems in American history: that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately borne the impact of that inequality.

I find his work most interesting in the way he looks at race and space, though I don’t fully agree with his view of race. He writes “Discrimination by race was a central fact of life in the postwar city. But the dimensions, significance, and very meaning of race differed depending on its cultural, political, and economic context. … Racial ideology, a shifting and fluid popular vernacular of race, served as the backdrop to the relationship between blacks and whites in the postwar city.” Discrimination and ideologies of race are indeed shifting things articulated with cultural, political and economic context, but never a backdrop. The opportunity this book misses is a deeper theorisation of the way the events it relates also formed racial ideologies. This is not to deny that ideology also worked on more of a national level, and that ideas of blackness

In mid-twentieth-century Detroit, as in the rest of the nation, racial identities rested on Widely held assumptions about the inferior intelligence of blacks, notions that blacks were physiologically better suited for certain types of work, and stereotypes about black licentiousness, sexual promiscuity, laziness, and dependence.

did not shape history as much as ideas of whiteness

On the other side was the persistent association of whiteness with Americanism, hard work, sexual restraint, and independence. These assumptions about racial difference were
nourished by a newly assertive whiteness

He argues that in addition to culture, “Perhaps most important in shaping the concept of race in the postwar ‘period, I argue, were local and national politics. Race was as much a political as a social construction.” But for me, the most interesting thing about this is that he is the first (that I have seen) to deeply examine how race and space intertwine, and the consequences of this third factor in conceptions of race:

Perceptions of racial differences were not, I argue, wholly, or even primarily, the consequences of popular culture. If they were, they would not have had such extraordinary staying power. In the postwar city, blackness and whiteness assumed a spatial definition. The physical state of African American neighborhoods and white neighborhoods in Detroit reinforced perceptions of race. The completeness of racial segregation made ghettoization seem an inevitable, natural consequence of profound racial differences. The barriers that kept blacks confined to racially isolated, deteriorating, inner-city neighborhoods were largely invisible to white Detroiters. To the majority of untutored white observers, visible poverty, overcrowding, and deteriorating houses were signs of individual moral deficiencies, not manifestations of structural inequalities. White perceptions of black neighborhoods provided seemingly irrefutable confirmation of African American inferiority and set the terms of debates over the inclusion of African Americans in the city’s housing and labor markets.

Much later in the book he goes on to say

“Racial incidents encoded possession and difference in urban space. Residents of postwar Detroit carried with them a cognitive map that helped them negotiate the complex urban landscape. In a large, amorphous twentieth-century city like Detroit, there were few visible landmarks to distinguish one neighborhood from another, But residents imposed onto the city’s featureless topography all sorts of invisible boundaries-boundaries shaped by intimate association, by institutions (like public-school catchment areas or Catholic parish boundaries), by class, and, most importantly, by race.

The sustained violence in Detroit’s neighborhoods was the consummate act in a process of identity formation. White Detroiters invented communities of race in the city that they defined spatially. Race in the postwar city was not just a cultural construction, Instead, whiteness, and by implication blackness, assumed a material dimension, imposed onto the geography of the city. Through the drawing of racial boundaries and through the use of systematic violence to maintain those boundaries, whites reinforced their own fragile racial identity.”

How fascinating is that? And depressing. I read this with a little pit of fear that I would run across family members in the accounts of furious blue collar white Catholic homeowners (I didn’t).
But what makes this book so fantastic is its breadth. It looks at space and segregation, but also at work and the process of deindustrialisation, it looks at struggle — both that of African Americans and the grassroots efforts of whites to preserve their neighborhoods, it looks at layers of party politics both local and national, it looks at developers and real estate agents. It looks at gender, at class divisions in the African American community, at union politics and schisms and the way that race consistently trumped class and how homeownership shifted working class consciousness, at the development of discourses around rights and property and housing, shifts in the meaning of liberalism.

This is scholarship to aspire to, the kind of research we need to understand the complexities of race in our cities today and think about effective struggle, and I look forward to reading it again, as its breadth ensures I will find a whole new excitement in it I am sure.

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