Black invisibility in the black city: Labor | December 19, 2010

The buildings of industrial decline are highly visible during the Thanksgiving Day Parade, while the people we can consider "surplus labor," remain invisible in the psyche's of most outsiders.

Last month I flew down South to give a talk on queer politics in the segregated city. After my panel was over I rushed next door to catch the next. It was about waste-human waste-and after a day of intense conversations about urban renewal, suburban politics, and identity I looked forward to talking about poop in all its forms.

Turns out, I was shit out of luck.

While the first and last presenter had fascinating things to say about poop, the second presenter was talking about Detroit; the abandoned factories pocketing the city, he argued, should be considered the waste of capitalism, and are discussed as waste in the national media. He criticized the “ruin porn” flowing from TIME’s Assignment Detroit pens, arguing that thinking about Detroit’s problems, or its emptiness, in localized terms (read: all our fault) obscures the structural forces (read:  capital mobility) which haven’t just destroyed Detroit, but which wreak havoc on communities all across the nation and the globe.

Fair enough. TIME’s ruin porn (and that of many others) operates on a familiar assumption:  “Most Americans are too dumb to understand the real causes of a problem, so we should just come up with some simple explanations.” I found the thought refreshing.

But if we’re going to talk about “waste” in Detroit we can’t just talk about buildings and prairies. The bricks-and-mortar and tumbleweed waste of US capitalism is certainly shockingly concentrated in Detroit. With one third of city land lying fallow and fifty percent population loss, it is necessary to revisit how we read that space, it is ever necessary to address it in creative ways. But on my third page of furiously scribblednotes, I wrote:  “capital mobility leaves people behind too.” After all, Marx talked about the means not just the mode, the worker not just the capital.

In America, we have a very hard time talking about the worker when it comes to progressive interpretations of urban decline. The buildings are the tragedy; the people living around the buildings (in Detroit, mostly black folks) are merely witnesses to their murder and the victims of hostile space. Those “bystanders,” however, are another form of capitalist waste. They are the surplus labor used for a short fling, and then kicked to the curb when they get too attached and start nagging about a ring.

Once dumped, they remain subjects with agency.

Geographer David Harvey sees capitalism as highly spatialized. Marx’s assertion that capitalism needs to constantly move to new planes of production to expand (if capitalism stops expanding, it stops being capitalism), he argues, is met by moving capital around regionally. Without getting into the messy details of Harvey’s geography, capitalism has to be on the move. Spaces are “produced” by capital moving into an area. Rather than take on a fair share of what it costs to produce that space (what it costs to build a city), capital moves somewhere else before it is asked to pony-up. This creates a new space somewhere else, but destroys the old through job loss, abandonment, and decreased revenue; hence, the term creative destruction. The destruction of old spaces creates growth because it allows capital to constantly avoid externalities.

The destruction of old spaces also entails leaving behind the initial physical capital (plants, brownfields, unused infrastructure), now worthless and a drain on local economies, but also the workers. Some can follow and some have the social capital to create new labor markets for themselves, others cannot and do not. In a society where economics and labor are inextricably bound up in white privilege, those with the fewest means to follow capital or trend into new labor markets when that capital leaves, are black and brown. In Detroit, the flight of capital left behind an incredible amount of empty space that was once teeming with life. It also left behind a lot of black workers.

Detroit is a city with bricks-and-mortar waste as the panelist suggested, but it’s also a city with labor “waste.” The popular discourse on old industrial cities such as New York, Philly, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Oakland, Chicago, and St. Louis portrays blacks as inherently and perpetually outside of the labor market. They are considered objects on a broken and abandoned landscape–ahistorical and drawn outside of the nations boundaries. What this popular discourse miserably fails to account for is the fact that those same people were here fifty years ago. They came here for work, they found it, and they lost it (as a group, anyways). Most people know that capital drew Blacks from the rural South to the urban North to work in manufacturing, shipping, and mining during the first half of the twentieth century, but when we start talking about job loss suddenly the image is of the white, unionized auto and steel worker who is forced into early retirement with a hefty buy-out package, or going back to community college to be a nurse. Blacks become identified instead with the ghetto job loss has wreaked havoc on, versus the job loss itself. Of course, the Black population as is diverse as the population at large, and I don’t intend to paint a monolithic picture of Black Detroit. Nonetheless, Detroit’s regional population as a whole has been hurt by the flight of capital, and blacks, consistently the “last hired and first fired,” have born a hugely disproportionate share of the burden.

Labor has as much to do with the urban decline and black ghetto of the second half of the twentieth century as with the growth and vitality of the first. In other words, the black city so pathologized since the 1960’s is the direct descendent of the black city that grew as a result of job growth and availability in the North. And if we see Detroit’s poor Black population as workers without work, as much as we saw their grandparents as workers with work, suddenly we realize that creative destruction throws out the populations, not just the buildings, of a city when it leaves.

As long Marxists as economists, urban planners, and historians studying Detroit fail to recognize the people on the losing end of capital mobility-and recognize them as live agents-and focus exclusively on the sexy and shocking empty buildings, they will never fully understand just how destructive the economic status quo really is.

1 Comment »

  1. […] A recent photo project by Romain Blanquart and Brian Widdis, “Can’t Forget the Motor City” strives to capture the people who live around these ruins, the lives that are ignored and devalued when people only see Detroit as “post- apocalypic” and beyond repair. What is at stake in the reminder that, yes, people still live here? Well, investment, for one, argues Bill Shea of Crain’s Detroit. If the rest of the world thinks Detroit is a barren wasteland, beyond hope, why would they see it as place to bring capital? But Jackson Christopher Bartlett of spacemakers also points out in his call for a “new narrative on Detroit” that the way news media has focused on investment in Detroit obscures the local people, particularly the people of color who are participating in their own organizing and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, the people who live in Detroit aren’t unemployed because they are unemployable, useless, helpless.  Rather, when capital leaves, it leaves “workers without work.” […]

    Pingback by Thinking about “ruin porn” « ladyelocutionist — February 11, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

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