Politics of Loss
Dr. Walter Greason
Norristown Times Herald
26 August 2014
The Congressional Black Caucus has failed its mission in spectacular fashion since 1971. No evidence of this failure is more pronounced than the absence of new industries owned by African Americans, especially in comparatively affluent suburbs across the United States. The ambiguous mission of the Caucus has focused on traditional measures of civil rights law, especially access to employment, education, and anti-poverty programs. All of these initiatives are important and deserve the attention that the CBC provides. However, there is a larger challenge that has been neglected over the last forty-five years. The CBC has not defined access to global, industrial, and digital capital as a priority for its constituents. As a result, districts served by the CBC have struggled to realize the promise of racial integration and the upward mobility of African Americans in global context. Instead, the industrial and professional black middle class of the decade following the Civil Rights Act of 1965 has collapsed, and today’s families have no clue about the ways to use their resources to change their daily lives.
The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the last two weeks are only the most visible and recent proof of this crisis. Certainly, urban African American communities have struggled as the world economy grew and industrial employment moved around the globe in unprecedented ways. However, suburban African American communities had the access to education and capital to counter some of these developments, if there had been better strategic planning between 1974 and 1994. Deindustrialization was not just a process of moving factories to developing countries. It was also the emergence of a digital world economy through cable television, computers, and the Internet. The CBC, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), African American Studies departments at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), and municipal leaders serving black families nationwide failed to engage this technological shift and failed to build new global enterprise to reach global markets with African American owned goods and services.
As a result, communities like Ferguson have no manufacturing enterprises and represented less than 0.4 percent of the total income in Missouri in 2007. Similar communities in New Jersey did even worse – Freehold Borough had no manufacturing income and earned only 0.02 percent of the state’s total income, while Asbury Park had no heavy industry and attracted 0.03 percent. In comparison, Chester City in Pennsylvania made 0.04 of Pennsylvania’s income that year. Closer to Ferguson’s income levels were Norristown and Pottstown with 0.1 percent and 0.09 percent of the state’s income. Yet, manufacturing remained a larger part of the local economic picture in Pennsylvania’s suburbs as Norristown maintained manufacturing as 24 percent of its total income and Pottstown kept manufacturing as 52 percent of its total income. Ferguson was a more prosperous suburb than many of its comparable communities in the northeastern United States, despite the absence of heavy industry. What could have been possible with informed engagement among the major institutions serving these communities?
In thousands of suburban communities worldwide, the breakdown of communications and priorities between local officials, stakeholders, and residents prevents effective economic growth and social stability. The last fifty years present infinite case studies in the politics of suburban mismanagement. Most often, there is an enduring contempt for working families who cannot imagine growing their earnings more aggressively by starting new ventures. In many cases, language barriers prevent new immigrants from finding a foothold in pursuing better lives. Still, tensions and resentments against Jewish, LGBT, Chicano, Latino, and African American families stymie productive governance – both public and private. Add to these problems a reflexive commitment to historical preservation that can border on xenophobia and the desperation that leads local investors to rely on waste management and the slow decay of rental properties for any municipal revenue. It is an equation for instability and violence in every community.
Discrimination in all of these forms must be utterly divorced from every concept of human liberty. Law enforcement and criminal justice disparities are just two manifestations of the systemic dysfunction. These crises are the fundamental test of the Obama coalition that prevailed in the last two presidential elections. If this diverse constituency of 65,000,000 people cannot build thousands of new global, digital ventures to transform old institutions like the CBC, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court, then this historical moment will be lost, and the drift back into traditions of segregation, inequality, and state violence will accelerate.
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth in 2012 and is the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Facebook, Twitter (@worldprofessor1/@icmgrowth), LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).