Over the past year, the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn renewed attention to racial inequality in the U.S. While a number of the incidents that have sparked the movement occurred in deindustrialized cities – Baltimore, Cleveland, and outside of St. Louis – commentators have not highlighted the connection between discussions of continuing discrimination against African Americans and the ongoing challenges of the legacy of economic restructuring. Yet neoliberal ideologies that value business growth and profit over the quality of life of workers and communities play significant roles in both.
When we pay attention to the way neoliberalism undermined working-class communities, we too often focus only on the white working class. But as the dozens of news stories about Detroit’s economic struggles makes clear, those same policies had an even more devastating effect on the black working class. In Detroit, discussions of post-industrial decline, the value of “Black Lives,” and economic development converge. The auto industry once offered good jobs, with solid wages and benefits, and that created a strong middle class. Yet African Americans, who now make up the majority of the city’s population, had just barely gained entry to that middle class before economic restructuring literally moved that opportunity out of reach. As Thomas Sugrue has argued, when the auto industry moved its plants to the suburbs, business benefited while black workers struggled.
Economic restructuring devastated the community, and while racial conflict played a role, Detroit’s failure to recover has generated both puzzlement and judgment. Too often, critics blame the city’s continuing economic struggles on its residents, sometimes invoking racial stereotypes. According to a Huffington Post list of “11 Stereotypes Detroiters Are Tired of Hearing,” some critics suggest that that “Detroiters are lazy/uneducated/apathetic, and if they actually cared, they’d make their city better.” While this statement is not overtly racialized, it is part of a broader pattern of blaming Detroit residents – most of whom are African-American. Ted Nugent claims that “pimps, whores, and welfare brats” are responsible for Detroit’s problems. In some cases, critics do get even more specific and place blame on the city’s largely black institutional and governmental leadership.
While some of the debate about Detroit is rooted in discussions of racial inequality, much of it centers on problems of Rust Belt redevelopment. Here, we see a different, but related, problem in the way outsiders explain the continuing difficulties that plague not only Detroit but many other Rust Belt communities: blaming residents for holding on to the past and failing to adapt to new economic conditions. On the one hand, when these communities survive intact, they are valorized for demonstrating “adaptive resilience.” Rather than holding on to the past or resisting economic and social change, residents have adapted to new circumstances. Those who criticize deindustrialized communities for their “destructive nostalgia” blame the victims, focusing attention on working-class communities rather than on the policies and ideologies that led not only to plant closings but also to economic development plans that either ignore the needs of low-income neighborhoods or attract businesses that turn out to offer little real opportunity to most residents. They also ignore the potential of community memory as a basis for resistance.
Those who praise communities for their “adaptive resilience” also place responsibility for economic development on residents and seem to want to erase history. Such arguments rely on ahistoric positivism, emphasizing the value of always moving forward, including – in many cases – embracing the neoliberal claim that attracting and adapting to new businesses is the key to survival, even when new forms of work pay less, rely on disruptive labor “flexibility,” and otherwise undermine the community cohesion necessary to foster resistance. Of course, communities that don’t recover can then be easily dismissed as “incapable of adaptive resilience,” as political scientist Thomas Greven noted sarcastically after hearing some of the explanations of Detroit’s continuing struggle.
Here, again, we see the value of connecting the Black Lives Matter movement with discussions about the challenges of revitalizing post-industrial cities. While the movement has engaged activists and citizens with an important structural analysis of race, it could perhaps deepen its critique by including an analysis of how policies and ideologies that always prioritize the interests of business have been central to impoverishment in black communities.
We need this kind of analysis among politicians, too. In responding to the question, “Do black lives matter?,” Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders missed an opportunity to discuss the impact of economic restructuring on the lives of the black working-class. Instead, he emphasized the need for reform of immigration and criminal justice policies and the vague promise of more education and jobs.
While Sanders is right that the black working-class needs jobs, and while attracting jobs is often an element of economic development strategies, the most vulnerable residents rarely see many benefits. As David Harvey has suggested, the channels and landscapes of neoliberal power frequently adhere to very familiar lines of race, class, and gender. But Black Lives Matter reminds us how little attention we pay to the economic and social struggles of urban areas. Instead, poverty and destitution are normalized. As critical theorist Judith Butler has suggested, Black Lives Matter “states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been realized.” No doubt, Black Lives Matters, along with the Occupy Movement, has had impact on political rhetoric. Both Republicans and Democrats are talking about inequality to one degree or another.
Still, it is the owners and managers of global capitalism who are shaping American urban areas. By successfully injecting neoliberalism into the thinking of economic development specialists and scholars, they coordinate economic development and urban planning. While ideas about austerity and the free market are increasingly in disrepute, they continue to surface in discussions of urban redevelopment.
The one way to end this practice is to make visible the undercurrents of neoliberalism in both economic development and racial injustice. As Michel Foucault made clear, power is everywhere and the discourse of power must be confronted.