Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tortured Calls for Civic Unity

I ran into an interesting blog post from the good folks at globalurbanist.com by Daniel London. Now I have read other pieces by London on globalurbanist and find his calls for a better historicized study of cities and activism to be refreshing and incredibly necessary. He has a clear passion and deep understanding for the role that good historical analysis and study has in speaking to the concerns of our urban areas today. This is unambiguously a good message.

However, I must take exception with his most recent post calling for a broader "civic unity" using the settlement house and social center movements as inspiration. I fully agree with him that we need to work on creating effective, diverse urban coalitions that can collectively act to address greater urban issues. But I would caution that commentators should be very careful in drawing out historical examples of "progressive" intervention, especially from US history.

The settlement house movement was certainly a grand example of US urban progressivism from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, but we should be honest about the rhetoric its proponents engaged in, the techniques it used, and the people it purported to serve.

While London highlights that settlement house workers lived among the poor of many urban cities and worked with them, we should remember that the mission of settlement houses was largely that of assimilation and this assimilation was largely a project of whitening new European immigrant populations. Khalil Gibran Muhammad in "The Condemnation of Blackness" speaks about how settlement house pioneers like Jane Addams explicitly critiqued the abuses and inequities of industrial capitalism and how it exploited new immigrants. The problem, according to these early activists, was not that the Irish, Italians, or Jews were naturally inferior or criminal but that social and economic inequality were dehumanizing and forced people into squalor and crime. Simply, settlement house activists advocated that the full humanity of these new immigrants be recognized, and that they be accorded every opportunity to improve themselves. Muhammad points out, though, that while activists in the settlement house movement like Addams made calls for the common humanity of immigrants and "traditional" Americans they either ignored or contributed to pathological arguments around black Americans. So, while immigrants were embraced and called to be full citizens, African-Americans were highlighted as culturally deficient and segregation was recommended as a preferred policy choice.

Such differences were made even more stark when we compare the treatment of potential African-American settlement house workers. Black social work organizations and settlement houses were continually under funded and those that were well-funded often had to contend with the racist assumptions of the white philanthropists that controlled their purse-strings.

My point here is not to say that London is wrong or a racist, but that if you are going to call for a historically-contextual approach to current urban problems, then you should try and take as holistic an approach as possible. This is not to say that we should not see the positive in the settlement house movement or their progressive mission, but it is HIGHLY selective to not point towards the greater historical context in which the movement arose. It's suspect to me that London is comfortable talking about the plights of new immigrants but ignores the racist anti-black politics that was central to the assimilation project lead by progressive organizations like Hull House and other settlement houses.

Why bring this up? Is it not unfair to point to the racist policies of these groups when we know that current activists are (supposedly) beyond issues regarding segregation? Am I saying the entire enterprise is bankrupt? Of course not. But I think that selectively highlighting such programs as an example of "civic unity" and using them as a model is not sound because it refuses to recognize legitimate conflict. The call for trying to move beyond diversity and create a united "civic unity" often erases legitimate political conflict. There are legitimate reasons why we see conflict between different racial and ethnic groups within urban areas. There are historical reasons why we still have intense spatial segregation, poverty that is disproportionately racialized, and an urban politics that pits these groups against each other. We can celebrate OWS neighborhood groups that are now encouraging dialogue, but that also ignores the hard work of community development groups and community organizers that have been trying to do such work for DECADES but historical issues of mistrust, racism, and conflict limited such efforts and they remain.

Succinctly, I'm not impressed by calls for "civic unity", especially those using historical institutions like settlement houses as an example, that do not take seriously a fuller examination of historical and current politics regarding social movement or organization. It's telling that the National Urban League and NAACP spent much of their early years refuting and attacking the racist assumptions and policies pushed by white progressive organizations. Not talking about these tensions or efforts to bridge them leaves us with an empty call for unity that renders existing struggle and conflict illegitimate. Ultimately, seeking to erase diversity in such a context is profoundly ahistorical because it seeks to erase differences that are much real and current.   Embrace the conflict.

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