Urban Renewal and the restorative power of justice
COLUMBIA, Mo 12/2/14 (Essay)
-- "Black America needs justice, and is given charity." W.E.B. Dubois'
succinct summation is truer now more than ever. "We Shall Overcome" remains the hopeful verse, and Black America has
overcome, two of three great injustices
that stole fundamental human rights
Slavery stole personal
abolished it after the Civil War. Jim Crow, aka Segregation
, took away political
rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964
, the Voting Rights Act of 1965
, and various Supreme Court decisions -- Brown v. Board of Education most notably -- abolished it following the Civil Rights movement. Urban Renewal
, which the writer James Baldwin
called "Negro Removal," deprived Black America of its property
rights and the freedom property ownership -- home, business, land -- confers. In concert with city ordinances and state statutes, three federal laws codified Urban Renewal as national policy: The Housing Act of 1949
; the Housing Act of 1954
; and the Federal Highway Act of 1956
Black Americans in Columbia as elsewhere still labor under its potent sting.
I'm charitable if I break your vase and glue the pieces back together. But I've only repaired, not restored it. Justice is better served if I replace the vase, with one as close in type, price, and condition to the original.
Justice restores. Charity only repairs. Justice is restoration, charity mere reparation. And yet, charity remains the tepid and ineffective response to the destruction Urban Renewal wrought: the wholesale theft of land and property from Black America, accomplished through eminent domain on steroids.
City Councils, legislatures, Congress, the Courts: the deliberative bodies that took this property have never restored it, leaving Black America in the unfortunate position of living in a capitalist country without the coin of capitalist freedom.
Instead, our institutions offer charity in place of justice. Public housing provides rentals where black-owned homes once stood. Politically-correct speech substitutes faux respect for the personal pride that comes with owning the soil beneath one's feet.
Welfare has replaced well-being. "Diversity" supplants dignity. Like a story from the Bible, a people aggrieved three times finds justice only twice. State-controlled consolation prizes block the third route to restoration, as they have for most of sixty years.
So are white people to blame for systematically oppressing Black America? No. The idea white people are privileged, racist cads is little more than another empty stereotype that stands in the way of Equal Justice.
Instead, blame a power differential that exists between black and white America
. Blame a powerful few, who flourish despite our Constitutional mandate that power be vested in the many.
They took what was not theirs from a resourceful, innovative, entrepreneurial, hard-working, visionary, minority community that left its chains behind, to drain the floodlands and till the rocky soils no one else wanted -- at least, not at first
This minority community spread across the nation in a diaspora of vigor
, America's Second Settlers, conquering hard ground and hard times
Look at the Harlem Renaissance
to see part of their legacy: some of America's finest artists, musicians, educators, philosophers, physicians, writers, performers, and political minds, emerging mere decades after enslavement ended.
It was a renaissance interrupted though, as Federal grants to aggressive local governments raised wrecking balls, and freedom-suffocating public assistance programs emerged, ironically to ameliorate the suffering Urban Renewal caused.
"Renewal" promised respite for an exhausted but hopeful people. It delivered wreckage instead.
oover Institution economist David Henderson
views Urban Renewal through the lens of his "Iron Law of Government Intervention.
" Read his 2011 treatise on the subject
, and see if it doesn't remind you of Ferguson, Missouri.
"One instance of this Iron Law is the famous, or infamous, Detroit riot of 1967
," Henderson explains. "After the riot, various pundits 'informed' the public that it happened because so many of Detroit’s black inner-city residents were poor and hopeless
"But a close look at the record reveals a much more interesting story—of a government’s police force oppressing people who simply wanted to live their lives peacefully
. This is not to say that the people who rioted bore no responsibility—everyone is responsible for his own actions. However, without the police force’s intrusion and without a previous federal program that had destroyed a community
, the riot probably would not have occurred."
The destroyer was Urban Renewal, Henderson explains.
"The area that had avoided rioting
had also successfully resisted Urban Renewal
, the federal government’s program of tearing down urban housing in which poor people lived and replacing it with fewer housing units aimed at a more-upscale market.
"Economist Martin Anderson, in his 1964 book, The Federal Bulldozer
, had shown many of the problems with urban renewal.
Even some of Anderson’s harshest critics at the time admitted that Urban Renewal could be called 'Negro clearance'."
As James Baldwin knew, "Negro clearance" was no exaggeration. So deep was Urban Renewal's grip that it tore apart black families, largely creating the "missing father" conundrum white folks and policy makers wring their hands over today, apparently with little understanding of the dilemma's historical context.
In The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
, former residents of the vast but failed St. Louis public housing project recall fathers forced to leave so mothers and children could qualify for the public assistance -- the charity -- Pruitt-Igoe would provide. "Qualifying" for public assistance requires the same low income -- and correspondingly reduced family structure -- even today.
Such are the sour fruits of charity instead of justice. T
here may be a road ahead, a route to resolution. But only if an often stubborn body politic will listen and act for a third time
. Return what was stolen
from Black America during Urban Renewal, much of it owned ever since by government. End the welfare
that has substituted dependency for liberty. Finally, never again use charity as an impotent consolation
for systematic misdeeds. In its proper context, charity is love through gift, but from hearts and individuals rather than laws and legislators.Justice -- not charity -- is the proper purview of the law.
How to accomplish all this? The devil is always in the details.
But if the end of slavery and Jim Crow are any guides, justice will find a way, Black America will overcome, and all America will find, if not perfect peace, then a greater measure of it.
-- Mike Martin