April 3, 2015
Continued from Urban Renewal Is About Urban Removal: Part 1
Wherever you see large numbers of Black people in any one area, you will find a large population of those living at/near poverty.
There are two Chicago’s, two Philadelphia’s, two Detroit’s, two Los Angeles’, two St Louis’, two New York’s, two Miami’s, two Houston’s, and there are definitely two Milwaukee’s. Why is this and what’s the common denominator? All of these cities large minority populations (i.e. Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.) and almost all are Black. Almost every state has at least one of these types of cities and some states might have two. There are nearly 350 million Americans, which include approximately 45 million African Americans that live in 50 states and reside in approximately 50,000 cities. African Americans currently represent approximately 13-14 percent of America’s total population; however, the majority of African Americans (est. 75 percent) live in only 50-60 cities. The majority of these cities are like two cities within one or what I refer to as “a tale of two cities.”
Take a look at some of the cities in the South that have large populations of Black people (Richmond, Atlanta, Memphis, Montgomery); the northeast (Philadelphia, Newark, New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C.); the Midwest (St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Gary); the west (Los Angeles, Oakland, New Orleans, Houston), all of these cities suffer from some of the same conditions. Even though Blacks are the largest voting bloc, Blacks haven’t been able to use their political advantage to exercise self-determination. In many cases, these cities have become economic drains on not only the region, but the state (at least this is the perception).
In Memphis, African Americans represent nearly 65 percent of the total 700,000 population; Philadelphia nearly 44 percent of the total 1.5 million population; Newark nearly 54 percent of the total population of 300,000; and Milwaukee nearly 40 percent of the total 600,000 population. In all of these cities Blacks represent the largest group (majority minority). These cities should be doing better for Black people but it’s just the opposite. In many of these cities, even though Blacks are the majority population, they don’t control the politics and where Blacks do control the politics, they’re dominated by someone else’s politics or they’re controlled by the county or the state.
Many of these states, even those considered to be democratic, have been able to neutralize the political strength of these cities and in many cases have restricted and/or significantly limited the autonomy of cities that have large Black populations.
While some of these states are considered “blue” (democratic) states, the bulk of the population is very conservative and there lies an extreme tension between these cities and the rest of the counties represented by their capitals. In Philadelphia, many of us say that between Philadelphia (east) and Pittsburg (west) lies ALABAMA. These people have never had any empathy for the plight of Black people in America and because of their massive ignorance and racist views, they’ve always viewed these cities as “us” against “them.”
There has always been a natural and healthy tension between the autonomy that cities seek to have with regard to the states (some are more restrictive than others), and there has always been a healthy tension between the autonomy of states and the federal government. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but it appears that this phenomenon is exaggerated when you have cities that have a majority minority population of Black people and especially if the city has been able to take control of the politics (i.e. Black mayor, Council President, etc.). It reminds me of when immediately after the emancipation (1863 – 1900) and Blacks were FREE to participate in politics in the South. Within a relatively short period of time Blacks were elected to the United States Congress (House of Representatives and Senate) and the response by conservative whites was harsh, and extreme with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the enactment of Jim Crow laws which virtually squashed the short-lived economic and political gains.
Wherever you see large numbers of Black people in any one area, you will find a large population of those living at/near poverty. Where you start matters; capitalism is an economic race that is won when you’ve amassed capital. The more capital you are able to achieve, the more power you can achieve and the easier self-determination can be achieved. With nearly 90 percent of all wealth (approximately $100 trillion) inherited and passed down (by the way so is poverty), it’s absolutely foolish to think that Black people could compete against whites. It’s like a 100-meter race between whites and Blacks in this country. Because of the enslavement of Black people for almost 300 years without any compensation, whites are given a 99.9 meters head start. When the whistle blows whites are able to cross the economic finish line with ease and Blacks never cross the finish line. Within the tale of two cities, there is no starker and blatant gap than the economic disparity that exists.
Do the math! Poverty is an economic term for individuals when they are unable to earn or secure enough revenue to take care of their basic needs. Spoiler alert! Blacks, when freed in 1863 were in 100 percent abject poverty. There was no deal; there were no 40 acres and a mule (NOTHING). Millions were free without a clue and were told to go out and compete. What’s remarkable is, when Blacks did make social and economic progress they were attacked despite the overwhelming advantage that whites had over them (some say that this was magnified by the threat that poor whites had when Blacks were able to surpass them). With nearly one-third of the Black population pulling itself out of poverty, the attacks against them became orchestrated and purposeful, creating challenges to any social and economic success they could achieve in this country. (KKK terrorism connected to the justice system, unfair laws, poor education, redlining, discrimination, etc.). I just don’t understand white people – even when they owned and controlled everything, every effort was made to keep the Black man enslaved. Even today, we see that attitude between cities that have a majority minority of Black people and the rest of the state.
As I continue to write that where you start matters, we must look at our start to coincide with Blacks being emancipated in 1863. If you start with the heavy migration of southern Blacks into the Midwest and northern cities seeking a better life for themselves and their families, you would see that many of those who were freed from chattel slavery were made a different type of slave by becoming sharecroppers. In addition, the poverty was overwhelming and many also wanted to escape the vicious life of terrorism under the lopsided and unfair laws of Jim Crow, along with the threat of loss of life and property orchestrated by KKK. There was an explosion of poor Black people relocating to these cities in hopes of achieving real freedom.
Many of these cities needed workers: In the Midwest there was the extensive manufacturing economy and in the northeast, there was the very large textile and steel industries. During this massive relocation of Black people, there was also the buildup of America’s military machine which contributed to the growth of many of these industries. In addition to several wars waged in South America, the Caribbean, and Korea, America was a key player in two World Wars. America was near full employment and many Blacks moved into America’s middle class.
Within these urban centers, many of the neighborhoods where Black people lived were considered ghettos. It’s important to note that Blacks weren’t the only ones living in ghettos – Irish, Italian, Polish, and Jewish immigrants also lived in ghettos. At one time, this term wasn’t exclusively a Black term. Traditionally, a ghetto is a part of a city in which members of a minority group live, especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure. It’s ironic that the term was originally used in Venice to describe the part of the city to which Jews were restricted and segregated. Today, ghetto is used almost exclusively to describe Black neighborhoods. How did the Jews, Irish, and the Italians, after a few generations manage to escape the ghettos and find a solid position in the middle to upper income class, while the bulk of African Americans still remained at the bottom rung of the economic ladder?
Over the past 30 years, many of these cities faced a familiar economic pattern, with the massive exodus of middle- and high-income families. While the overwhelming majority was white flight, a considerable number of economically mobile Black families followed whites into the suburbs leaving these cities disproportionately poor and struggling with the following:
- Shrinking Tax Base – When high-income families move out, cities lose revenues (i.e. income tax, sales tax, property tax, business tax, etc.). To compensate for the loss in revenues and to maintain a certain level of amenities, these cities have to continue to raise taxes.
- Increased Social Services – When high income families move out it creates a disproportionate amount of families living at/below poverty levels, which requires cities to use operating funds to service social issues (i.e. homelessness, mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, teen pregnancy, foster care, etc.).
- General Decline in City Services – As a result of increased cost and legacy union contracts, neighborhoods cost more to maintain than the economic benefit derived. Eventually city services decline and those neighborhoods that produce the higher tax base get more services than those that don’t. This results in a general decline in the quality of life (i.e. recreation, streets, lights, graffiti removal, trash pickup, policing and the criminal justice system, tree trimming, etc.).
- Very Poor Schools Systems – When high income families move out of the city it will significantly impact the real estate values which is a key funding source for school districts. Real estate values decline because the housing stock starts to deteriorate along with the growth of blight (i.e. houses become vacant and there is no immediate correction). Homeownership starts to decline, neighborhood instability starts to rise. Many of these city school districts are faced with shrinking revenues while their costs are increasing. Their costs increase because the children they now serve are more in need than the previous student body (i.e. health, food service, transportation, mental health, special education, etc.).
- Significant Economic Disinvestments – As more families with disposable incomes leave, ultimately retailers will follow suit. Coupled with the a general decline in services; decline in real estate values; higher taxes; poorer workforce, over the long run, businesses are hard-pressed to see new business and will seek to relocate because doing business in these cities compared to other areas is cost prohibitive. Some cities have lost tens of thousands of jobs which create a strong criminal “underground economy” and spur violence and a ballooning prison population.
- Poverty – For many of these cities, poverty is the number one issue that is growing. The result of all of the above has created a vicious cycle that cities have been unable to address.
This tale of two cities is a very interesting phenomenon that is growing because of the massive disparities that exist between the residents of both groups. While it’s the best of times for some, it’s the worst of times for many others and the growing economic gap is not a gap but a canyon. Due to a number of factors, not the least of them being: empty nesters moving from the suburbs into urban centers; very low interest rates; tax incentives for development; the extreme profit margins on land that had become significantly devalued (blighted) in these cities and many of the neighborhoods; the return of investment capital back into real estate after the 2008 recession; significant political access, what we see taking place in these cities is an economic boom primarily for wealthy white people restoring traditionally Black neighborhoods (gentrification).
All of these factors and more, including gentrification, contribute to the tale of two cities on which I will elaborate more on in my next article.
Rahim Islam is a National Speaker and Writer, Convener of Philadelphia Community of Leaders, and President/CEO of Universal Companies, a community development and education management company headquartered in Philadelphia, PA. Follow Rahim Islam on Facebook (Rahim Islam) and Twitter (@RahimIslamUC).