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Dr. Lester K. Spence

I've got about 20 minutes before a van picks me up and takes me to the Roots and Remedies site (I'm here talking about cities and political change). So that doesn't quite give me enough time to make the changes to my chapter on neoliberalism and the black church…but it might be enough time for me to post something relatively cogent here. Let's see. 

I was on the Takeaway with Mary Frances Berry last week talking about My Brother's Keeper in the wake of a couple of letters sent to the White House protesting the initiative. Berry signed one of the letters. I was asked, but passed. The letter I received–the one that a couple hundred black male activists, intellectuals, and scholars signed–ended up, just like the letter Mary Frances Berry signed, missing the neoliberal core of MBK. 

MBK is basically a self-help initiative backed with foundation dollars. It, like many (though not all) public private initiatives take the concept of the market as a given and work to fit the target subjects INTO the market as it exists. This is why the President focused so much on individual responsibility and on "no excuses". Now we know that the reason black communities are failing has nothing to do with the lack of individual responsibility, and has everything to do with the way the state and the economy currently function. And on top of that, we know that the reason they focus on boys rather than on girls is in part because of the sexist narrative that black communities only function properly when boys can become men and can take their roles as heads of household. And they can only do that when they have self-esteem, when they have the ability to discipline themselves, when they have the wherewithal to get and keep a job, when they have the ability to not only have but raise children, etc. etc. etc.


(Fifteen minutes left.)

The way the problem in this case is articulated–black boys are at the bottom of every important indicator both within black communities and outside of them because they aren't embedded in the right networks, don't have the best level of self-esteem, don't quite understand how to resolve conflict–leads to the types of solutions we get. Black Male Achievement summits. Black male mentorship programs. Black male beer summits. All directed with private resources. All structured by private foundations. The White House may weigh in on "best practices" but there is absolutely NO real public involvement. 

The neoliberal end goal for MBK is to identify black boys and men capable of being sufficiently responsible, from black boys and men incapable of doing so. The end goal is to create a better fit between black boys/men, and the modern economy which needs boys/men capable of (legally) grinding and hustling, capable of doing everything for themselves and their community that in a sane society the state would do. And they use foundations to do it not just becasue the GOP controls the Congress and wouldn't pass any legislation that looked to deal with the issues of black boys and men unless that legislation had PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX written on it. They use foundations to do it because they are not interested in having the type of public participation that could either transform a program like this into something more useful for black communities or take a program like this and expand it to cover other constituencies and to generate support for progressive government in general.

When the brothers and sisters protest this move solely on the terrain of gender–they end up missing the most important component. It bears reiterating–if MBK were actually MB&SK we'd be looking at programs that taught brothers to pull their pants up and sisters to keep their legs closed. 

Who would want that?

When brothers and sisters protest this move solely on the terrain of gender, they almost by definition, narrow the solution set to a beer summit. Which is what they received, without the beer. The White House calls a meeting, which both sides deem to be "productive" and at best they add a couple of people to any oversight committee they create. It leaves the system itself fundamentally in tact and uninterrogated. 

I am SO glad that the brothers and sisters in this case decided to go against Obama's signal initiative. But damn we need a more active black intellectual left. 

(Time. Sending this out raw and unedited. Feedback welcomed and encouraged.) 



Detroit Water Politics

In the ongoing effort to "right size" the City of Detroit's budget, public officials have begun a draconian effort designed to further extort resources from residents with the least ability to afford them. They've increased water rates, and begun to threaten those who are behind with shut-off notices, prompting Detroit activists to petition the United Nations. 

There are already a few really good pieces that put this in perspective. The attempt to take a public resource, like water, and in effect privatize it, is nothing less than part of the ongoing neoliberalization struggle. It's a struggle that has two goals:

1. To replace democracy with non-democratic expert driven forms of "governance".

2. To privatize public goods and resources. 

With the end result being significant increases in inequality, and significant decreases in the ability of people to come together as a public to determine how to reduce and reverse this process. 

In the US and elsewhere black bodies and the cities they populate tend to work better at accomplishing these aims because black people are deemed to be incapable of democracy and not deserving of public goods. The image of black poor people suffering from lack of water tends to evoke derision and disgust in the majority white population (and increasingly in blacks as well) rather than empathy. This causes people to put more blame on black poor people themselves for either not being able to ration their water usage, or for not being able to choose the proper political leadership in the first place. 

As opposed to, for example, questioning whether the same types of strategies are used on corporate entities also behind on their bill. Or more broadly, to question whether there should be circumstances under which water and other public goods should be used to generate profits in the first place.

A few years ago a classmate of mine contacted me about a documentary he helped produce about water politics in his hometown of Highland Park (one of two cities that sit squarely within the City of Detroit's borders, Hamtramck being the other). He sent me a copy, and it fit my Urban Policy class perfectly.

Years before the City of Detroit was forced into declaring bankruptcy, Highland Park was placed under emergency financial management. And in trying to get the city OUT of efm status one of the first things they considered was privatizing the water. 

As soon as I saw this documentary I immediately placed an order with my library. Until we have more substantive work on Detroit (and it'll take years for this) The Water Front is the best available to help understand what's going on in Detroit. 


During the first week of June Baltimore's City Council overwhelmingly approved legislation modifying Baltimore's curfew law to make it one of the strictest in the country. Kids under 14 have to be indoors by 9pm. Kids between 14-16 have to be indoors by 10pm on school nights and 11pm during the summer. Kids found in violation of the curfew will not be arrested but instead will be sent to a "contact center". Their parents will be fined up to $500 (a $200 increase).  

Here's a video about the legislation.

Here's a video with the mayor.

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Note how the mayor and most of the people interviewed in both videos use "common sense" to support their approach. Who wouldn't want children in general in the house by 9pm? What sane adult would allow their children outside after dark? If we were to ask 100 people randomly what would be the "natural" consequence of letting children roam the streets at night I'm betting 90 of them would say crime. 

The first week of June, while the City Council made their decision I was in Paris, attending The Right to the City conference. In 1968, a few months before students and workers in France almost overthrew the government, Henri Lefebvre published an essay "La Droit a la Ville" (english translation: "The Right to the City") arguing that people who live within the city, who in effect use the city as their canvass, have more of an inherent right to the city than people who own it (businesspersons, developers, people who work but don't live in the city, etc.).

Here's a copy

Since Lefebvre's essay was published cities in the United States have been forced to make two different sets of moves.

The first move is to spend more and more resources on attracting corporate investors, offering a variety of tax incentives to do so. In the United States and elsewhere this move is "incentivized" by national policies that diminish the amount of resources cities have to spend on social services. Beginning with Richard Nixon (who to be fair was not interested as much in killing aid to cities as he was in rationalizing aid to cities) and moving through Ford, Reagan (who was interested in killing aid to cities), Bush and continuing through to Obama, at best cities have been given incentives to engage in "public private partnerships" that would give them national resources in exchange for creating more favorable business climates1. As cities relied less and less on public investment they had to rely more and more on private investment in the form of municipal bonds, a tactic that relied on high bond ratings from bond rating agencies. These bond rating agencies tended to look down on social service provision believing it to be a poor investment.

Which brings up the second move. As cities spent more and more on corporate investors they spent less and less on neighborhoods and on working class and poor populations. They spent less and less on parks and green space. They spent less on recreation. They spent less on summer programs. They spent less on a variety of resources that served to enhance the quality of urban life for the people who actually lived, loved, and played in the city. 

With one exception.

Money spent on policing either remains stable, even in the face of budget cuts, or increases. And while city officials get little to no help from states and the federal government to provide social services and the like, they DO receive aid from states and the federal government for policing. 

Around a year ago, Baltimore closed and privatized 20 recreation centers, arguing they didn't have the resources to staff them. If you listen carefully to the interview with the mayor above, the mayor noted that she wants a "contact center" in every major district. Where will the resources come from? Who will staff those centers?

Lefebvre's work is helpful here. Youth as a group are more likely to use the city for a variety of wonderfully unintended consequences than any other demographic group. They should have a right to the city, particularly when juxtaposed against the downtown business interests who arguably rely on the type of tourists who might be less inclined to spend money downtown if it is "swamped" with kids.2

But Lefebvre doesn't account for differences within urban populations. It isn't just business interests that want to see kids controlled, it's adults who increasingly come to support the "common sense" notion that spending money on curfew centers makes more sense than spending money to keep recreation centers open.     

The Mayor held a meeting with a variety of youth groups in the city. From what I understand the youth were extremely critical of the mayor's approach, causing the mayor to suggest that as an adult she had more of a right to make decisions about their lives than they did. 

This issue is important to me intellectually, given both my first and second (forthcoming) books. It's important to me politically–I'm on the board of The Intersection. I have a good idea about how black baltimore youth think. And evidence suggests some adults have different opinions as well.     


Unfortunately there's no way to resolve this through a traditional black politics lens. Using such an approach would either have us focusing more on racism than on the type of intra-racial politics we see here, or it would have us focusing more on adults and child safety than on the possibility that even if we use child safety as the most important issue the central question we should be asking is, what should the city be used for. WHO should the city be used for?


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On April 25, TMZ released a recording of Donald Sterling (owner of the Los Angeles Clippers) telling his girlfriend that he didn't want her bringing black people to his basketball games, this as the NBA itself is a predominantly black league, this as the Los Angeles Clippers has a black coach, this as the Los Angeles Clippers has only one American born white player and 12 black ones–Hedo Turkoglu is the odd man out here. Magic Johnson, who was mentioned in the tape, LeBron James, Jalen Rose, a number of sports commentators, even Michael Jordan, all came out against Sterling. 

As did the internets. 

I think flashpoint events like this are useful in at least two ways. For websites like TMZ, such events drive traffic–and again for the web traffic is almost everything. For people interested in racial politics both analytically and politically, instances like this go a long way into showing that things aren't really all that different. 

But when something like this happens we tend to forego rich political analyses for simple ones that shed more heat than light, analytically and politically. 

With that said here are ten thoughts, written in no particular order:

  1. Almost as soon as the tapes became public people began to compare the NBA Players to slaves. Of course there's a textual precedent here, and some evidence to support the claim. But NBA players are most decidedly not slaves. They have some control over their labor. They receive renumeration for their labor. In fact they even have a players union–which as someone I follow on social media noted, automatically gives them better labor politics than 88% of the American population. Now they are constrained in unique ways, but these constraints don't rise to slavery. I get the use of hyperbole to make a point, or to sell books. But particularly when we want players themselves to act with a certain type of political agency, such comparisons politically hurt our cause.
  2. Along the same lines (and I know I said there is no particular order here, but whatever) there's a type of disdain for labor when we suggest that all people like Chris Paul do is shoot a ball in a hoop, compared perhaps to people working low wage jobs in McDonalds, or to adjunct faculty members, or to any number of people who have to work to provide for themselves. In fact I'd go one step further and say there's a type of disdain for black labor here. To say that the only thing people like Paul do is "put a ball in a hoop" both ignores the work Paul put in at putting that ball in the hoop–work that's made Paul better at that act than more than 99% of us are at what we get paid to do–and ignores the fact that in contemporary society most of us do work that is, in effect, superfluous.   
  3. The Clippers had two days to make a decision about how to respond to the tape. Two days. I tried to think of an example where some type of protest that had real life consequences for the people engaging in that protest, occurred with only two days preparation. I couldn't. Such examples likely exist…but I'm betting that each example we come up with came as the result of weeks, months, and in some cases years of political preparation. The Clippers didn't have that. 
  4. Sterling's example does suggest that racism hasn't gone away–although we didn't really need to know this. But I'm so glad that people like Bomani Jones and other journalists wrote articles about Sterling's racism years before this event occurred. None of them knew when they wrote these articles that this would happen…but because of their groundwork it was relatively simple for people to link Sterling's current behavior to his past behavior. And then it was relatively simple for the players and contemporary journalists to ask the NBA why they hadn't acted on Sterling in the past. The seeds for future change are consistently planted in the present.
  5. I'm not surprised the Clippers lost…and although I haven't really been paying attention to the series (this year's playoffs have been compelling but I knew I wouldn't really be watching until the semi-finals at best) I don't think they're going to make it past the Warriors. Players like Paul and Blake Griffin have played in pressure packed situations before, but the pressure is usually driven by the game itself. I'm pretty sure their home-court advantage is going to be nullified, meaning that the three games they have remaining (if they get that far) are all going to be played as "away" games. Hard to overcome that.
  6. Particularly with the explosion of the internet I think there are a number of quality sports columnists out there. But, and I haven't said this in a while, I really wish Ralph Wiley were alive.
  7. Times like this provide an opportunity for rupture. But note what possibilities are still foreclosed. The "solution" for example is to remove Sterling as an ownwer, and to replace him with a coalition of minority owners–Magic Johnson for example. Putting aside how weird it would be to have Johnson associated with the Clippers given his long standing relationship with the L.A. Lakers, note how we're still taking the structure of ownership for granted. If the City of Los Angeles for example, owned the Clippers, what would that look like? 
  8. I appreciate Jeff Van Gundy. Broadcasters are in a unique situation economically and politically. It's a lot easier to swap them out if they "go out of bounds" so to speak, because people don't really watch the game for the announcers (maybe baseball fans do but not basketball fans). And although they make money, they don't make nearly as much money as they do when they used to either play or coach. Even though one could argue that Van Gundy didn't go far enough in his stance against racism and in his critique of the league, he didn't have to, for example, suggest that the players owed it to themselves, to their children, to their family members, and to their communities, to stand up against racism. 
  9. I also appreciate LeBron James, who didn't hesitate to suggest that the league doesn't have room for Sterling. James gets a bad rap for any  number of reasons, but if I had to start a ball club with one player of any generation, he might not be my first (I'd probably go with a center like Bill Russell) but he'd be my second. He plays the game the right way, and he behaves the right way. If he can get four in a row I'm willing to make the case for him as the greatest non-center to ever play. 
  10. Another take on the labor question. Every moment like this works as kind of a micro-crisis of sorts. We've got to take advantage of these micro-crises to put new ideas out there, and then to think through how the new tactical responses (no team in modern sports history has ever taken even the minor step the Clippers did) can be applied in other contexts.   
  11. I know I said ten but sue me. Going back to the two days thing, this represents an excellent opportunity to think about how interests work, against a simplistic morality approach. Let's say that every player on the team AND the coach, wanted to "do something". Players like Paul and Griffin have job security…but players like Turkoglu (who may not even be an American citizen) don't. On the other hand players like Paul and Griffin are arguably going to be defined by the number of rings they get, while someone like Jamal Crawford (go blue) will not. And then while the black players have a direct interest in contesting what happened, someone like J J Redick might not. So even if we concede the possibility that they ALL wanted to "do something" what that "something" ends up being, are going to be shaped by their interests far more than their racial morality.