Realtors and Redlining Destroyed Neighborhoods – Was Alinsky a No-Show?

redliningNew Orleans   Looking into the rising return of the family crushing and neighborhood killing predation involved in contract-for-deed property transactions being revived by Wall Street veterans and facilitated by weak regulations and federal off-loading of foreclosure inventory from the real estate bubble of 2008, I stumbled onto an interesting book, Family Properties:  Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter.  Published in 2009, Satter is not only a historian and chairperson of that department at Rutgers University, but has skin-in-the-game, since she was driven to the subject to understand the conflicting family story of her own father who died when she was a child and whether he was a crusading civil rights lawyer and advocate in Chicago or a slumlord himself.  

            Being only half through the book so far, I can’t definitively answer her question, nor have I arrived in my reading to the sections on the Contract Buyers’ League, which was central to my motivation in uploading the book to my Kindle.  On the other hand, I’m knee deep in an excellent, well-written, and researched history that puts race and real estate speculation squarely at the heart of urban neighborhood deterioration from the post-war decades until our current times.  In Little Rock, where I first ran into contract-for-deed exploitation, it was always clear that if there was a power structure anywhere in the city it was centered in the real estate interests, and from our 1972 campaign to “Save the City” forward, including forcibly confronting blockbusting in the Oak Forest neighborhood, they were our main opponents.  In that sense, Family Properties was a deep affirmation and an extension of the argument and those experiences across the urban battlefield of America.

            Somewhat unexpectedly though, I’ve found nothing subtle in Satter’s critique, and condemnation of Saul Alinsky and his community organizing in Chicago during those years.  She bells him repeatedly, beginning with his antipathy for organizing the poor, who were most exploited by all of these practices, and for his inability to strategically and tactically embrace the reality of race in his organizing and the practices of the organizations they built in Chicago.  She doesn’t argue so much that the problem was direct racism, as more fundamentally a weakness in the Alinsky organizing model itself, saying that

“…ineffectiveness of the OSC [Organization of the Southwest] and TWO [The Woodlawn Organization] highlighted the two major flaws of Alinsky’s model of organizing:  his insistence that organizing efforts be fully funded before they could be launched, which left him vulnerable to pressure by the wealthy donors, and perhaps more serious, his belief that they should tackle only issues that were ‘winnable.’”

Sharpening her point she argues that, “Unfortunately, Alinsky’s insistence on fighting only for winnable ends guaranteed that his organizations would never truly confront the powerful forces devastating racially changing and black neighborhoods.”  Ouch!

            She piles on evidence to the extent that her arguments are almost irresistible, include his scolding of his lieutenant, Nicholas von Hoffman and others, for getting too involved in real estate issues when he was in Europe, that he thought were jeopardizing organizational funding, his opposition to fighting black displacement in Hyde Park, and his view that fighting “racial discrimination that lay at the root of community decay…was ‘too complicated.’”  Satter adds that,

“Alinsky often cast urban renewal as an ‘unwinnable’ issue to be avoided.  TWO’s attitude toward housing was similarly confused.  The group apparently felt that the redlining policies that forced black Woodlawners to buy on contract were too complex for effective community mobilization.”

Satter even cites Alinsky’s own biographer in the claim that killing the Square Deal campaign was done on a totally transactional basis,

“According to Alinsky’s biographer, the Square Deal campaign was ‘intentionally terminated by Alinsky and von Hoffman’ because TWO wanted the financial support of merchants when it turned to ‘larger issues such as urban renewal.” 

Twisting the knife, she adds,

“The net result was that, instead of blazing a new path for community activism, TWO became yet another demonstration of the perils of reformers’ financial dependence on the very people they needed to challenge.”

            Adding insult to injury she argues that the creation of the West Side Organization and its achievements were “an overt challenge to Alinsky, who had warned him against organizing the very poor – an action that Alinsky believed would divide the larger community.”   During the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King effort to take the civil rights movement north, she includes an assessment from one of the movement’s legendary organizers that was equally devastating, quoting…

“…James Bevell, a charismatic Mississippi-born African American who had participated in virtually all of the major Southern civil rights crusades.  In Bevel’s view, too, Alinsky ‘simply taught how to, within the context of power, grab and struggle to get your share.’”


            None of this is definitive, but it’s a critique that has weight and can’t be ignored.  Having organized and fought redlining, realtors, and neighborhood deterioration for decades, as organizers we may have to confront whether or not Saul Alinsky, as a primary architect of community organization, was not only a no-show when it mattered in Chicago, but abetted the problem by skirting the battlefields that counted, by not using issues to build power for the bigger fights, but instead running from the fights themselves.  If that’s the case, the legacy of that shadow could still be crippling the work that needs to be done in addition to the way the work is done.

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Milwaukee and Other Cities are Explosions Waiting to Happen

 An eviction in Milwaukee in December. Often, landlords turn to informal methods to get families to leave.Photograph by Philip Montgomery for The New Yorker

An eviction in Milwaukee in December. Often, landlords turn to informal methods to get families to leave. Photograph by Philip Montgomery for The New Yorker

New Orleans    For quite a while in these times of inequity and polarization around income, class, race, and so many other issues, there has seemed – at least to me – a fuse steadily and slowly burning towards an explosion in our cities. We are definitely seeing it now in Milwaukee, as the community rioted in destructive anger in reaction to a black policeman 24-years old killing a fleeing black man 23-years old, who was also armed.

The anger is erupting because it comes from an unrequited rage. Elements of the community are saying, essentially, “We don’t care about whether police say the killing was justified or not; the killing has to stop!” We can quibble and disagree about the facts, the tactics, and the collateral damage, but it is hard to argue that police occupation of lower income, largely minority communities is working to either stop crime or, even more importantly, to protect and secure the communities themselves or integrate them fully into the overall life of the city. People are drowning without lifelines or lifeboats in sight. No one could have read the book, Evicted¸ and its close, hard look at conditions in Milwaukee’s lower income neighborhoods around housing, which are little different than scores of other cities, without understanding that all of these situations are powder kegs waiting for matches.

But, as Milwaukee is demonstrating, to see the crisis as a simple matter of police-community relationships where strategy and tactics have gone terribly awry, is also a mistake. These issues and estrangements are bigger than that, and they are more comprehensive. The police are simply at the front of the line, but everyone else is still in the queue, equally responsible. There are few better examples that the surprise the press is finding in Milwaukee that they are also a target of protest and rage.

The police are the close-at-hand occupiers, while the press is now increasingly the far removed observers. As newspapers and other media outlets have drastically cut the staffing of their newsrooms in the technological crisis within their industry, the coverage of communities of class and color, which were never robust, are now even more drastically depleted. Any casual conversation with community organizers will quickly reveal how invisible the work has become and how increasingly shrouded their communities have become. Large protests and similar events go unreported. When covered, it’s often now a student intern or stringer or a photographer sent just to get a picture. We’re back in the 50’s again where the mainstream media largely depends on self-appointed or downtown-vetted community leaders rather than facts and forces on the ground, so who is surprised that when they show up in the community there’s something less than applause.

The New York Times quoted a community advocate in Milwaukee with a radio show saying, “Our stories get mixed.” At first I thought this might be a misquote and that he really said, “nixed,” but he was more likely saying that the stories suffer from too much two-handed coverage, where the voices of the community are muted and the issues, no matter how stark, are diluted.

Not to keep being the Cassandra here, but attention must be paid. As I keep arguing, for all the noise out there, this all seems like the fire this time, and there will be no excuse for policy makers, politicians, and other institutions, large and small, to act even remotely surprised when it breaks out everywhere.

Nothing is being done to solve these problems, so who would be surprised that people start expressing their anger in whatever ways are still available to them.

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Please enjoy this version of The Midnight Special by Billy Bragg & Joe Henry. Thanks to KABF.

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Co-Op Leaders in the Bunker, but Feeling the Heat

coversummer2016New Orleans   The cover story in this issue of the quarterly journal, Social Policy, laid out the case once again on the lack of diversity and democracy in the rural electric cooperatives in the 12-state southern area. The minimal representation of African-Americans and Hispanics is region-wide despite the huge populations of both of these groups throughout the region, frequently occupying majorities in many of the service areas of the cooperatives. The regional statistics are less than 5% representation for African-Americans and less than 1% for Hispanics. Women fare only slightly better, though they represent a majority in the South when we looked at these same 313-odd electrical cooperatives.

Cooperatives ostensibly are membership-run institutions with every member getting to vote to elect their representatives and on have a say at annual meetings on matters of policy. All of these cooperatives have been the beneficiaries of extensive grants and loans of public monies, usually federal, dating back to the New Deal, and many still are receiving discounted interest rates and loans for their programs and generating facilities. The USDA and their own literature claims they are critical economic development and social service providers in rural areas, and as a multi-billion dollar set of institutions they are a significant employer and economic presence in their service areas as well. Almost all of their websites and information includes language claiming that they do not discriminate. But, here we sit with facts and figures that undermine all of these claims and provide evidence of the opposite.

Frequently the story and the earlier report speak of these cooperatives and their leadership as “frozen in the fifties,” as if they have been able to hunker down and pretend time stopped and the civil rights movement, women’s movement and other major social changes that impact the same demographics simply never happened. Being in rural areas they have believed they could escape notice.

Being big, they can get away with it. In releasing the report to news outlets throughout the region, it was depressing talking to some of the small town weeklies and other news outlets that allegedly cover the news in these rural communities. They basically didn’t want “to rock the boat.” Many pleaded that the impact of reporting the story, even when obvious and well-known to some of them, because it was the equivalent of economic suicide: they needed the ads from the cooperatives and their leadership. We had noticed this group-think and stifling collaboration earlier when we had sent letters to all of the cooperatives and, almost defying all statistical or random possibility, we received not one single response, even a refusal to provide information or a brushoff or a go-fly-a-kite, just total silence.

Meeting with various cooperative experts and advocates while I was in Madison, Wisconsin recently, it was reassuring to find out that according to inside sources the report was on the agenda at the recent meetings of the board of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. One advocate speculated that there was likely not a manager of an electric cooperative in the country that had not received a copy of the report. He also believed it was likely mandatory reading increasingly for elected members of cooperative boards. All that was good to hear. They may be hiding with their heads down, but they hear the bullets whizzing by them increasingly.

If I believed in some kind of by-the-by, trickledown theory and practice of change, then I might just say, “our work is done,” and wait to see whether there might be some gradual reforms or some jump of the needle indicating more diverse representation in coming cooperative elections.

That’s not what we believe though, so to keep the heat on we are meeting today in New Orleans with our ACORN International researchers to see what the IRS 990s for the cooperative say about what these folks in the cooperative bunkers are paying themselves for directors’ fees. So far what we’re seeing isn’t pretty, but it as the cop-shows on television say, it does establish an additional motive for this kind of anti-democratic behavior which keeps the “white, right, and ready to fight” crowd running the cooperatives without real diversity or democracy, just as they have for over 75 years.

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Race and Class are Often Matters of Perspective

Oscar-Voters-RaceNew Orleans    It’s hard to find many people who live and die for the Academy Awards. This is an industry show where plaques are given out much like the ones you might find at the Hardware Dealers’ or Plumbers Friends Conventions in a side ballroom in some off-the-strip Las Vegas casino hotel. It’s very, very important to the people who make their living this way, but for most of us at best it’s a curiosity. There’s a difference though because the big shining light of television cameras is pointed at all the pretty people, and it’s not supposed to be real, but entertainment, and millions watch as a distraction from the daily grind and the abusive political season.

For a change though it did matter because the issue of diversity has made the entertainment seem too expensive for the damage done to our collective culture and its impact on the millions who are excluded, as the Academy and its industry awards are exposed as baubles from a rich, elite white boys’ club and little more. The painful stories of sidetracked careers, thoughtless comments, and lost opportunity suffered by African-Americans, Latinos, women, gays, and, ok, anyone who is not a white man are now live streaming constantly in every medium.

The great comic, Chris Rock, hosting the show, zinged everyone on all sides of the question, belittling the boycott of the Awards as being “…like me boycotting Rihanna’s parties…[when] I wasn’t invited,” but still be clear about the reality. “All these producers, actors, they don’t hire black people, but they’re the nicest white people on earth. Hollywood is sorority racist.” Ouch, that one hit ‘em hard! All of this was prompted by it being the second straight year in which no non-white was nominated for any of the awards. Focus on the Academy’s membership which turned about to be about 88% white certainly gave a clue that diversity was not on the screen credits very prominently in Hollywood.

They’ll sort this out and pretend to do better, but the gut punch of diversity is being able to empathize with the experience of others, rather than being blinded simply by your own interests. This is not just a problem in Hollywood, but everywhere, whether well-meaning or malicious.

Recently I attended a rededication of a “diversity garden” at my old public high school for our class that had been the first to be integrated in the city. The former class president of so many decades ago read a poem that presented the experience in a glowing light, emphasizing the lack of violence and overt expressions of hate that met so many similar episodes in the South. One of the 14 first-time African-American students spoke as well and gave a far different narrative of feeling alienated and ostracized, and poorer and dumber than her life experience had led her to feel previously or subsequently. In place of the pretty picture was her story of being spat on in the streetcar by a random citizen of the fair city. Some classmates were surprised to hear that the head of the NAACP had solicited her to attend along with the others, as if these life changing bits of history all happened in a vacuum or through some pro forma process of sending out an announcement and having people show up for an admissions test. Others felt they should speak about their own feelings of alienation at the time of not being part of the richer, preppie-style in-crowd…the folks that ate at the popular grill across from the high school rather than eating from their bag lunches or in the cafeteria.

Diversity is about welcoming difference and in the process learning to empathize and perhaps even beginning to understand the separate, and often difficult, experiences of others. Hollywood needs to do this now under the big lights, but the task also never ends for the rest of us who live in the shadows, but need to constantly learn to shine our own light to brighten and enrich the whole community and enjoy the small rewards of a richer life for ourselves and others by doing so.

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Please enjoy Anyhow by Tedeschi Trucks Band. Thanks to Kabf.

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The Dilution of Class Privilege on Mardi Gras

s.mgpastpresent.2New Orleans    Mardi Gras season is rough for year round residents. It’s not the going to parades but navigating the parade routes so that regular work and life maintains its semi-normal routine. It’s also stomaching the symbols.

Mardi Gras marks the beginning of Lent on the Christian calendar with Easter forty days away. Historically, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a guilty pleasure rife with class and racial entitlement. And, like so many rock-ribbed Southern traditions, the traditions of the upper class continue unabated. The daily newspapers continue to parade front page pictures on the Sunday before Mardi Gras of an elderly white man anointed as the King of the Rex parade, the premier old line outfit, and a young, white woman debutante as the Queen of Rex. This year’s queen looked twelve in her picture. She is no doubt an accomplished young woman who is now attending Yale and speaks Mandarin, but has never gone to school and hardly ever lived in New Orleans, as distant from her disloyal subjects as the planet Mars. The uptown island of wealth and privilege in New Orleans continues to float aimlessly in a sea that is 60% African-American and one of the most crime ridden and poorest cities in the United States. There’s something distinctly unappealing about watching self-proclaimed royalty throwing trinkets to the out stretched arms of the masses, but maybe that’s just me, because it is certainly deeply rooted in the New Orleans culture.

There’s pushback though. The Endymion parade celebrated its 50th Mardi Gras and along with other so-called super-krewes have left Rex in the dirt as the most popular parades. Endymion was a middle and working class parade interloper now claiming thousands of members, open to pretty much anyone willing to come up with a couple of grand. Not for everyone certainly, but compared to the high society swells, a democratic revolution. Such parades chose their royalty from the ranks of local and other celebrities focusing on the crowds and popularity, maybe even the fun of it all, rather than the pomp and prestige.

The post-Katrina surge of the young and the hips detached from any tradition, but looking for a good time, has also leavened some of the more troubling pieces of the Mardi Gras tradition and added a somewhat more democratic tinge to the experience. The African-American Indian “tribes” and costumes were neighborhood based and outside of the main culture, and now newcomers have brought some of the same topsy-turvy to tradition. There are walking parades, makeshift floats or none at all, and costumes of all description often to musical accompaniment. There are parades for dogs and neighborhood parades of floats the size of a shoebox. Some are bawdy and racy, while others are political and satirical. Many are unannounced without routes or routines and therefore all of the more exciting. When you hear the music, you can run to your front stoop and with some joy and surprise catch a glimpse of the passing parade.

Gradually the people are stealing up on the big whoops and making Mardi Gras their own as the natives and the newcomers make it more fun and celebratory, rather than a painful parody of the city’s racial and class divide.

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The President Goes to Prison – Hooray!

Obama-prison-meeting-w-prisoners-VICERock Creek, Montana     Barack Obama became the first United States President to go inside a federal prison.  No doubt the rightwing will feast on this for days, but for the rest of us his visit should be a feast of celebration because it takes another sturdy step forward towards a more explicit recognition of the tragedy that another lost war, the so-called “war on drugs” has wrought inequitably on African-Americans, their families, and communities bringing shame to our entire society.

The President had been signaling significant movement on this issue directly and through his former Attorney-General Eric Holder in recent years, especially as he has been more liberated in the last years of his tenure.  He had announced that he was taking steps to pardon thousands detained in the federal prison system for minor, nonviolent drug beefs who were being held there by mandatory sentencing rules.

Michelle Alexander whose book, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, issued perhaps the most detailed and impassioned clarion call about the devastating price the US and our whole society was paying due to the political knee-jerking from Nixon to the Bushes with a hearty helping from Clinton in passing more and more stringent drug laws while ignoring the fact that police, the courts, and Congress were allowing this war-on-drugs to weaponize racism and disproportionately punish black and brown communities.  All of this despite every evidence that the vast majority of drug users, especially marijuana and cocaine, were white and often professionals as well.  Just the kind of people that did not have to worry about stop-and-frisk, random car searches despite constitutional protections that should be claimed against unlawful fishing expeditions in the name of searches, and other problems with the police.   Alexander has probably been moderately surprised to see the shift that Obama and Holder made on these issues.  Her book had expressed little hope for Obama in this area based on his statements in the 2008 campaign and his early appointments including his naming of Holder given his record as a prosecutor in the District of Columbia demanding tough drug sentencing during his tenure.

My fingers are crossed that we may see the kind of leadership now that President Obama is capable of bringing forward in this area.  Besides looking at incarceration and mandatory sentencing, there are some other matters that should be on the list.  There is no excuse for denying families access to federally funded public housing because someone in their family may have had a drug conviction.  There is no rhyme or reason for denying an eligible family federally funded welfare or food stamps for the same reason.  Such actions are vengeful and unjust, punishing without mercy the families for problems experience by the few.  How can it be justified or explained to anyone.  It’s just plain meanness.  Alexander was crystal clear that the only explanation for such behavior is racism.  The new Jim Crow is not the old Jim Crow, but that doesn’t mean it should be tolerated in the least.

Racism is racism, not matter how much we pretend colorblindness or hide behind the instruments of power that attempt to rationalize such activity.   Obama going to prison in Oklahoma is a good sign that we may be starting down the road to wiping this stain from our contemporary society, but just like the old Jim Crow, the new Jim Crow will take years to absolve.  If ever.

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