Last weekend Yanni finally came to Detroit. Hundreds of adoring house-wives poured into the Fox Theater to witness the most masturbatory multi-cultural presentation the world has ever seen. The whole idea of new-age music (white people taking all the cultures of the world and mashing them together to create such exotic 12 minute delights as Dare to Dream, Nightingale, and One World, One People) got me thinking about the census data released just a few days before.
The 2011 data show that Yanni’s “one people” is still living as if there were several peoples, divided as much (usually more) by the measure of their skin-color than by class. The notion that globalization and exposure to other cultures has produced a world where we all suddenly feel accountable to the plight of one another across racial, ethnic, religious, class, and gender differences was one of the defining features of the last twenty years, and is what brought Yanni’s popularity into being. A new neoliberal discourse of multi-culturalism and global harmony via free trade and the Westernization of non-Western cultures was an outgrowth of the liberal colorblindness of the post-war era and, similarly, rapidly out-paced the actual progression of US society towards race, class, and gender equality.
Yanni’s shows are only ridiculous (if not exaggerated) representations of a larger neoliberal discourse telling us that we are through dividing ourselves based on race and class, and that we should feel very good about it. Interestingly, this language is being vamped more than ever by the right as conditions on the ground worsen. The “post-racial society” that elected its first Black president is engaged in a racially coded “War on Terror,” and the newly refurbished global cities of New York and San Francisco are shamed by the near complete separation of their residents by race and class. The promise of multi-cultural harmony in the post-modern city distracts us from the sharp reality of a world where non-white people continue to subsidize “prosperity” with their sweat, unemployment, and depressed home values.
Detroit and Chicago tied for third on the Segregation Level/Dissimilarity Index and New York City would have taken home the cake if it weren’t for Milwaukee’s staggering inability to tackle housing segregation in the last ten years. Los Angeles, Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and most other major cities have made few gains since 2000 in integrating Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, and Asians in terms of housing, with the Black-White divide continuing to be the strongest.
Beyond these measures, Berkeley demographer Emmanuel Saez demonstrated that income inequality steadily rose throughout the 1990’s to an all-time high (yes, all-time) by 2007. Quoted in the Huffington Post in 2009, Saez shared the shocking statistic that “in the economic expansion of 2002-2007, the top 1 percent captured two-thirds of income growth” in the US. And while these changes in the US economy impacted poor, working, and middle class people across the board, people of color caught the most hell. Foreclosures and joblessness grew exponentially in minority-majority cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and even Chicago with the only respite for some coming from sharp decreases in crime.
The material realities of Black-white segregation in US cities have not kept up with this changing rhetoric on race. While downtown Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco erected their multi-cultural, globalized, Disneyland facades, their neighborhoods remained steeped in racial drama. Other cities nearly collapsed altogether under the crushing weight of white flight and disinvestment, suburban control, and the elimination of federal aid (Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, and others). In other words, while notions of multi-culturalism and color-blindness have come to pervade our discourse on cities globally, but particularly in the US, the lived experiences of whites and non-whites in American cities remain rooted in familiar patterns of an uneven distribution of wealth and urban development based on race.