Tag Archives: Labour

Gerald Horne, Watts and the Fire This Time

Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time is an intriguing study of the Watts uprising, situating it in both a national context of red-baiting and the impact on civil rights struggles of the destruction of any kind of radical class-based organizing, and an international context with its connections to liberation struggles and cold war politics. He argues the uprising marks a full change:

The uprising in Watts was a milestone marking the previous era from what (16) was to come. For blacks it marked the rise of black nationalism, as blacks revolted against police brutality. But what began as a black revolt against the police quickly became a police revolt against blacks. This latter revolt was a milestone too, one marking the onset of a “white backlash” that would propel Ronald Reagan into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento and then the White House. White backlash proved to be more potent than what had given it impetus, black nationalism. This too was the meaning of the 1960s (17).

This is part of a larger argument, and I’d guess it is one he is making across several books – I haven’t read the others, but they are all on my list

I have argued that just as the conflict between capitalism and slavery led to the abolition of bonded labor, the conflict between capitalism and the possibilities of socialism led to the abolition of formal Jim Crow. I am certain that at some point in the twenty-first century, historians will be obligated to tackle this important question–the dismantling of legalized segregation by reference to the Cold War (17).

He also has a clear understanding (though he doesn’t use the same language) as those who describe California’s racial hierarchies – he refers to it as compounded racism drawing on Griswold de Castillo:

The impact of the Mexican heritage of California must be considered also. Blacks could receive civil rights concessions for national security reasons; in California there’ was the added incentive of a competing, compounded racism. By the time Los Angeles experienced another burst of civil unrest in
1992, the city’s Latino, or Spanish-speaking, population was growing more rapidly than monolingual blacks. This created an opportunity for blacks in the city and state to assume the position of “middle man minority” and consequently to gain top posts in City Hall and Sacramento much more rapidly than their Latino counterparts. (18)

This is echoed in the wonderful quotes he draws together about the complexities and contradictions of L.A.’s residential and labour landscapes—this book’s strength is in the framework for analysis and the incredible amount of original source material that he draws from. My only critique is that it seems like a (very large) chapter in a larger work, drawing on an understanding of a radical and left-leaning L.A. that is not widely known, making the framework seem sometimes like an outline, filled in with amazing detail:

Langston Hughes captured the complexity of LA and race at this time. The city, he said, “seemed more a miracle than a city, a place where oranges sold for one cent a dozen, ordinary black folks lived in huge houses with ‘miles of yards,’ and prosperity seemed to reign in spite of the Depression.” Yet he felt that Hollywood “might just as well be controlled by Hitler.” 26 The social scientist Charles Johnson also noticed this racial complexity. “In certain plants where Mexicans were regarded as white, Negroes were not allowed to mix with them; where Mexicans were classed as colored, Negroes not only worked with them but were given positions over them. In certain plants Mexicans and whites worked together; in some others, white workers accepted Negroes and objected to Mexicans; still in others white workers accepted Mexicans and objected to Japanese.”27 When employers hired African Americans, they preferred the light-skinned variety. According to James Gregory nothing bothered Okies more “than California’s system of racial and ethnic relations.” They were shocked by signs reading “no white laborers need apply.” The conflict between their past and present realities helps to explain why a raw racism became a “source of group identity” for many of these migrants from a state known as “Little Dixie.” 28 (29)

Despite, or because of this, many felt it widely understood that L.A. didn’t have the same kind of race problem as did Detroit or Chicago.

Staff member William Colby reminded the McCone Commission about the widespread opinion that “Los Angeles was number 1 as the place where Negroes are better off.” Perhaps because of the affluent stratum of black sports figures and entertainers, cinema and television representations, the appealing climate, or all of the above, the city was favored by many black migrants, not only from the traditional southern areas but also increasingly deteriorating midwestern cities like St. Louis.20 Despite the claims of Colby, a number of blacks viewed the City of Angels as “spiritually below the Mason-Dixon line, without the nastiness of park benches labeled ‘for colored,'” and “40 years behind the rest of the country.” 21 (50) (20. Report by William Colby, 11 Nov. 19 Box 18, 16 McCone Papers)

I love also the drawing out of class divisions, the particularities of Watts that made it the epicentre of rebellion:

On top of the regional insult suffered by all blacks, those of Watts had the added burden to bear that gave added intensity to their anger; they not only faced interracial pain but the intraracial variety as well. Stanley Sanders, the other son of Watts and its first Rhodes scholar, has added his own interpretation. He blamed the building of Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Court, and other housing projects that came to hold a significant percentage of the black poor as being partly responsible for Watts’s image. Out of this vortex emerged gangs like the Black Swans and the Farmers. Each project spawned different gangs, and conflict was not unknown. Speaking in 1990, Sanders recalled that “most middle class blacks” were “afraid to come to Watts.” With a remaining scintilla of bitterness, he recalled rejection at a dance because he came from Watts. He and his friends were deemed “outcasts.” They were “looked down on” by other blacks. They were the “bottom of [the] barrel,” he continued. He remembered not only a “color line” but an “economic” line. There was economic conflict that had both interracial and intraracial consequences. The same could be said of color conflict. There was not only the usual white chauvinism; there were “very few fair skinned blacks in Watts,” and these were perceived as discriminating against their darker brothers and sisters, referring to folks in Watts as “those black niggers in Watts” as if they were “a whole different race.” This combination of resentments–a compounded racism in sum-helps to explain why LA exploded first and with a fervor dwarfing contemporaneous outbursts. 25 (51)

There’s some really interesting stuff about the reaction, and how the uprising was viewed by establishment figures:

Later, after the fires had cooled, journalist Theodore White agreed with Parker: “Modern Negro violence is not simply rioting but an urban form of guerilla warfare” that needed to be confronted with new “weapons and tactics.” Strikingly, White conceded the black nationalists’ argument, even using androcentric terms: “It is, at this time, perhaps necessary to find out how to create some form of Negro self-government coupled with Negro responsibility in the big cities which will give Negroes that sense of control over their own destinies that all men so dearly require.”(64)

This idea I find both fascinating and a bit tragic – the way that Marcus Garvey was also able to find some common cause with white supremacists because both groups wanted black folks to secede, to separate, to segregate. It helps put in perspective the change in the movement post-Watts, and why it was such a crisis for King and others:

The Watts Uprising helped to set in motion a nationalism that filled an ideological void in Black LA. The Black Scare was unpredictable; it could and did present a threat to the person of some elite whites. The stories and pictures of whites being pulled from their cars and attacked were frightening to some of those with melanin deficiency. But, akin to the old Jack Benny joke, where the comedian is torn when the robber demands, “Your money or your life,” LA elites recognized that the nationalists could be accommodated in a way that their militant predecessors of the left could not. As long as separatism was decoupled from reparations, the NOI-influenced nationalism not only did (132) not present a threat to private property, it could even be helpful-along with racism–in keeping apart those who might want to unite jointly against the LAPD and the elites it was sworn to protect. The problem for blacks was that the blows from LAPD batons raining steadily down on their heads — overwhelmingly by white officers commanded by white elites–made any notion of “black and white unite and fight” seem like a delirious dream not even worthy of Hollywood. (133)

And so we are left to look at what remains, what happened to the vibrant movements. He doesn’t go into the destruction of the Panthers, only that their tenure was brief and allusions to the role of the FBI in their demise. But it’s clear why he believes they were targeted as they were:

So, after the excessive fire launched by the LAPD, there was widespread praise for Chief Parker, some flawed affirmative action, and a few other minor reforms. The black community was moving increasingly in a nationalist direction, angry at whites generally and their perceived designated representatives, a mostly.white LAPD. But this sentiment was contained in crystallized form in the theological vessel of the NOI [Nation of Islam]. There was the NAACP, which was perceived as being the spokesman for the middle class. There were gangs, some evolving toward the Black Panther party. And there were the so-called cultural nationalists, who pioneered in the “Black Is Beautiful” movement but allowed themselves to be manipulated against the Panthers. The Panthers had concluded that only armed struggle could repel the LAPD.
Except for the Panthers, all of these forces had rudimentary middle-class ideas about becoming entrepreneurs or middle-level government bureaucrats, or managing illicit empires, or simply finding a way to survive U.S. imperialism mentally and culturally without challenging it. In the 1990s all—except the Panthers—continue to exist. (167)

Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag

In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney's representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney’s representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Golden GulagGolden Gulag is written by an activist trying to answer questions asked by mothers fighting for the lives of their children in prison, and grappling with the theory behind her work, so you know I loved it. I found it quite challenging though, and I’m still thinking about how she frames the political economy of prisons and how that intersects with race.

In a nutshell, she argues that “…prisons are partial geographical solutions to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis” [26]. She draws on the work of Hall and Schwartz in how she thinks about and defines crisis: “Crisis occurs when the social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the pre-existing system of social relations” a very technical definition I must confess. But essentially it means that change has to happen, the system of social relations or the social formation must shift. She argues that one way (maybe the only way, I’m out of my depth but I imagine one way) for society to find itself in such a crisis is through the build-up of surpluses. Capitalism depends on a cycle of accumulation of goods and their sale at a profit, it goes into crisis when goods simply accumulate. This crisis is not simply economic, but also political and social. In examining the political economy of California, she find four key surpluses provoking crisis. The state could have chosen different ways to resolve these surpluses, but instead they chose to embark on the largest prison building program the world has ever seen.

So this is the crux, the four surpluses are (in highly simplified form)

finance capital: investors specialising in public debt were having a hard time getting bonds through, they had money and couldn’t lend it to a very large and wealthy government

land: given drought, debt and development, farmers have increasingly been withdrawing irrigated land from production – ceasing to invest in irrigation infrastructure as it is no longer economically feasible. In addition there are large amounts of surplus land in and around depressed towns throughout California, together with high unemployment.

labour: manufacturing left, and hit poor communities of colour the hardest. The increasing number of prisoners has kept pace, and in many ways controlled, the rising levels of unemployment, and the highest percentage of prisoners comes from those areas with the highest levels of unemployment

state capacity: with the tax revolt that took place in California in the 1970s, the state was forced into crisis by lack of funds and lack of mandate to redistribute wealth through programs and services, while still maintaining it’s bureaucratic architecture. The State needed some other way to maintain that architecture.

And thus, prisons. More of them than anyone has ever seen. The rest of the book is looking at why these surpluses resulted in this particular solution.

It’s certainly a deeper and more complex argument than many of the prevailing ideas that she outlines: crime went up, we cracked down; drug epidemic; structural changes in employment opportunities; privatization of prison functions and the search for profit; provision of rural jobs and development; reform. It accounts for all of these things really, drawing them all into a more complex story.

She also draws on Hall and Gramsci to analyse perceptions and changing definitions of crime. I like her take on ideology:

Such change is not just a shift in ideas or vocabulary or frameworks, but rather in the entire structure of meanings and feelings (the lived ideology, or “taking to heart”) through which we actively understand the world and place our actions in it (Williams 1961). Ideology matters along its entire continuum, from common sense (“where people are at”) to philosophies (where people imagine the coherence of their understanding comes from: Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Marx, Malcolm X, the market).” [243]

Her invocation of race is also interesting:

As the example of racism suggests, institutions are sets of hierarchical relationships (structures) that persist across time (Martinot 2003) undergoing, as we have seen in the case of prisons, periodic reform. Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. [28]

I have often seen this quoted, but usually in addition to other definitions. It is curious that she relates it solely to premature death, I’m trying to wrap my head around that, why you would limit it to that, whether that doesn’t leave important things out. I suppose life and death is the most important question after all. She also includes a chapter that tries to grapple with the lived experience of how such a political economy of prisons and race intersects, what that means to people over and above it’s roots in political economy:

From the mothers’ vantage point, we can see how prison expansion and opposition to it are part of the long history of African-Americans and others whose struggle for liberation in the racial state has never achieved even a fully unfettered capacity to be free labor. The development of political responses to legal dilemmas indicates how profoundly incapacitation deepens, rather than solves, social crisis. This chapter … personalizes and generalizes the morally intolerable (Kent 1972) to highlight objective and subjective dimensions of the expansion of punishment and prisons, the demise of the weak welfare state, and the capacity of everyday people to organize and lead themselves. [185]

I like how this is done, but found it hard to connect it theoretically to the sections that preceded it on political economy, it almost felt like a world and story apart. But that might be a reflection of my own experience in how hard it is to bring these two worlds together.

I am also thinking through her comments on activism and scholarship, activism and power. She uses Gramsci in a way I hadn’t thought of and like immensely:

On the contrary, in scholarly research, answers are only as good as the further questions they provoke, while for activists, answers are as good as the tactics they make possible. [27]

grassroots organization should be the kind that “renovates and makes critical already-existing activities” of both action and analysis to build a movement (Gramsci 1971: 330-31)

Ordinarily, activists focus on taking power, as though the entire political setip were really a matter of “it” (Structure) versus “us” (agncy). But if the structure-agency opposition isn’t how things really work, then perhaps politics is more complicated, and therefore open to more hopeful action. People can and do make power through, for example, developing capacities in organizations. But that’s not enough, becayse all an individual organization can do is tweak Armageddon. When the capacities resulting from purposeful action are combined toward ends greater than mission statements or other provisional limits, powerful alignments begin to shake the grounds. In other words, movement happens. [248]

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Nicholas Dreystadt, Cadillacs & African-Americans

So. I have always vaguely wondered about the rather unique love-affair between African-Americans and the Cadillac. I stumbled across this story of Nicholas Dreystadt in a book called The Chrome Colossus by Ed Cray, while doing some research for my dissertation…

It is 1932, and GM is actually at the point of abandoning the Cadillac forever…what was on the cutting board? This beauty of an automobile:

Nicholas Dreystadt, head of the Cadillac division, breaks into the meeting

As Cadillac service manager, Dreystadt had earlier discovered that the car was very popular with the small black bourgeoisie of successful entertainers, doctors and ghetto businessmen. A surprising number brought Cadillacs in for service–surprising because corporate policy was not to sell Cadillacs to blacks at all; the Cadillac was reserved for the white prestige market. “But the wealthy Negro,” business critic Peter F. Drucker recalled, “wanted a Cadillac so badly that he paid a substantial premium to a white man to front for him in buying one. Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that a Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other of the outward signs of worldly success.”

Overwhelmed by Dreystadt’s audacity and bemused by his proposal, the committee gave him eighteen months in which to develop the Negro market. By the end of 1934, Derystadt had the Cadillac division breaking even, and by 1940 had multplied sales tenfold… (Cray 279)

It is one side of the story to be sure, a comfortable retelling of an atrocious racism prevalent in this most American of institutions. And all of America. There must be so much more to it of course, but what a fascinating glimpse from a very corporate angle. Turned around, in spite of the fury it inspires, it seems to say that African-Americans saved the Cadillac from extinction. What did they save again?

God damn. I know it’s conspicuous consumption, but I continue utterly smitten with the craftsmanship and beauty of something such as this.

But there is more. I continue reading and 50 pages later I find this story from the WWII years:

Dreystadt had accepted a contract to produce delicate aircraft gyroscopes. despite mutterings on the fourteenth floor that the job was a killer and needed skilled hands unavailable. The dissent turned to outrage when Dreystadt and his personnel manager, Jim Roche, hired 2,000 overage black prostitutes from Paradise Valley–uneducated, untrained, but willing workers. Dreystadt hired the madams too, blithely explaining, “They know how to manage the women.”

Dreystadt himself machined a dozen gyroscopes, then produced a training film detailing the step-by-step assembly process. Within weeks the women were surpassing quotas, and the outrage turned to chagrin on West Grand Boulevard. Jokes about Cadillac’s “red-light district” angered Dreystadt. “These women are my fellow workers, and yours,” he insisted. “They do a good job and respect their work. Whatever their past, they are entitled to the same respect as any one of our associates.”

Dreystadt knew he would have to replace these women at war’s end–returning veterans had job preference, and the United Auto Workers, heavily white male with a southern-states orientation, wanted the women out of the plant. “Nigger-lover” and “whore-monger” Dreystadt fought to keep some, pleading, “For the first time in their lives, these poor wretches are paid decently, work in decent conditions, and have some rights. And for the first time they have some dignity and self-respect. It’s our duty to save them from being again rejected and despised.” The union stood adamant.

When the women were laid off, a number committed suicide  rather than return to the streets. Nick Dreystadt grieved, “God forgive me. I have failed these poor souls.” (Cray 318-319)

Again, only one side and a highly problematic retelling of what is truly a remarkable story by any measure. And again, racism in bucketfuls. But who was this Nick Dreystadt really? And where are the other sides of this story to be found? I shall be looking, no fear…

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Ford, and confusion in right wing rhetoric

Even among the many books on economics and transnational corporations that I do not agree with, there are some among them that are at least rationally argued and relatively factual. But I rather enjoy when they are not, it allows me to stay awake through the boredom, mumbling angrily at the page and marking exclamation points and question marks in the margins. And their own contradictions and prejudices always come to the fore…a few choice quotes from my recent favourite:

Ford also expanded mechanical parts manufacturing in the United Kingdom (such activities are less sensitive to labor disruptions) and body and assembly in Germany, where the work force was more efficient.

Ah, racial…er…national profiling? Grand generalizations? You have to love them, especially when they’re tossed into the argument like olives of unknown provenance into a greek salad.

Increasingly, these disagreements within the US Big Three made it difficult for the US government to intervene effectively in their bargaining with the Mexican government.

Long live free trade! I wonder who was more vexed, the big three or the US government?

The UAW’s failure to negotiate better with the auto makers that had recently established in the United States also accounted for the disadvantage that the US Big Three face vis-a-vis their foreign rivals…

Is this the present or the past, who can tell? One thing I know is that it’s those damn unions again, always letting the home country’s corporations down…but I suppose if you can’t blame the workers for not kicking some Japanese ass, who can you blame for the American corporation’s failure?

The maquiladoras became the most visible symbols of the threats that low-wage countries could pose to jobs…

Again, if you can’t blame those greedy low-wage countries for the threats against jobs, who can you blame? Oh wait…

US government policies that fostered automotive production in maquiladora plants also altered the negotiating dynamic between the Mexican government and the US vehicle producers. The US auto makers learned about the low costs and the high quality of automotive production in Mexico, and the Mexican government learned about the benefits of rationalizing Mexican automotive production on a North American basis.

This is an extraordinary thing to say by any standard (unless you’re a patriotic elementary school teacher reading directly from a company brochure). It is especially extraordinary if you’re aware of the fact, as the author states earlier in the book, that Ford opened its first Mexican factory in 1925 and GM and Chrysler in 1935. And all of them had been operating there continuously for decades.

Sadly enough, the ongoing silliness of this right-wing hodgepodge of contradictory imperialist and free-trade theories  kept me entranced until the very end! So I have now read a book in its entirety that I can never use as a source in good conscience, though I shall certainly find some of the original sources useful. I could have just read the bibliography…I suppose I know who has had the last laugh.