The deeper shame of American cities (Fortune, 1968)
Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a story from our magazine archives. As the country prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King Day and inaugurate its first African-American president for a second term, we turn to this piece from November of 1968. In the wake of the bitterly shocking 1967 Detroit riots, Fortune published a special issue delving deeply into the role of cities and urban poverty in exacerbating the tensions of the late Civil Rights era. This piece is an introduction to the issue, a cri de couer about the role of the marketplace and responsibility in civic society. NB: The language in this story has not been altered from the original.
By Max Ways
“If you got the big red apple, man, you got the worm, too.”
Along with American success there has always been the recurrent pain, the spasms of self-doubt, of fear, of desperate conflict. Most versions of our history are glossily cheerful, but in truth, as an American once told Jacques Maritain, “We are bruised souls.” Real risk of failure, of collapse, has been present in every U.S. crisis: 1776, 1789, 1828, 1861, in the long traumatic uprootings of industrialization and mass immigration, and after that in 1917, 1932, and 1941. England was once called “merrie” and France “gay”; at no time have such lightsome adjectives been applied to the United States.
A nation that has often lived dangerously now stands again at the volcano’s rim. At a time of our highest material success and at its symbolic center, Detroit, the 1967 riots poured out lava of hatred and destruction–and similar eruptions shook scores of other cities and towns. The pressures of racial tension that generated almost suicidal behavior, white and black, have not yet abated and will not abate of their own accord. For years ahead the most urgent internal business of the U.S. will be to contain and reduce these pressures. It would be reckless, indeed, to underestimate our danger, to assume that because we have mastered other crises we will master this one. But it would be just as disastrous to assume that there is no possibility that we can restore our essential social unity.
The U.S., however, will not surmount the racial crisis unless it makes rapid progress toward resolving a broader, though less acute, crisis–that of “the city.” In this context, “the city” means not just the great core cities of our metropolitan areas; it refers to the whole situs of contemporary American civilization, the nationwide complex, including satellite cities, suburbs, and towns. This has become one vast pulsing organism. Although many of its internal communications are awry and its organs badly coordinated one with another, our society is more interdependent than ever before and more so than any other society, past or present. Cut into thousands of political fragments ranging from great states to tiny villages, this whole subfederal level, the city, has had to cope with huge new burdens created by shifts of population and changes in the style of life. During the last thirty-five years, when public discussion concentrated mainly on Washington and on international affairs, the neglected subfederal level of our public life has been falling further and further behind the responsibilities thrust upon it by social change.
As it happens, most of the instruments by which society might deal with the Negro crisis (police, education, welfare, public health, and housing) are administered–and must continue to be administered–mainly at subfederal levels. The race crisis has pressed hardest at precisely those points where U.S. society’s ability to cope was already weakest. This was made terrifyingly plain in last summer’s riots when, in city after city and town after town, police were unable to maintain order. The failure was predictable. Why expect effective riot control from the same law-enforcement apparatus that for fifty years has failed to break up organized crime, failed to contain the narcotics traffic, failed to protect citizens on the streets, failed to reform juvenile delinquents, failed even in traffic control and highway safety? Law enforcement is only one of a hundred areas where the incompetence of a public service impinges upon the racial crisis. The other day a Negro leader walked into the office of a New York business executive and asked a good question: “How can a city which is not able to perform the simple job of getting the garbage off the streets hope to handle the really difficult problems of race relations?”
Trust is the cornerstone of civic order, but few of us, white or black, really trust the communities in which we live. We have no reason to suppose that they will keep the air and the rivers clean or that they can effectively protect our lives or our property. Expensive locks and burglar alarms multiply. The sale of firearms to private citizens has been mounting, especially since last summer’s riots–an ominous sign that men of both races have diminished confidence in the public authority’s ability to keep the civil peace. Running away from the challenges of the city, we have let our communal competence decline and our civic trust drain away.
All this is no secret. The whole world knows the condition of U.S. cities–and has known it for decades. The billions we have poured out for foreign aid and propaganda, the more numerous billions we spend for military support of our foreign policy, are half-canceled by the damage that is done to U.S. prestige by our long-standing inability to deal effectively with gangsterism, slums, high infant death rates among our poor, traffic jams, junkyards, billboards, and all the rest of the noxious mess. What, much of the world asks, is the point of being the richest and most powerful nation, if such problems can’t be handled better? What is the point of capitalism? Of democracy? And never forget that 95 percent of what’s wrong with the city developed before the crisis in race relations. “The Negro problem” represents a crisis within a crisis, a specific and acute syndrome in a body already ill from more general disorders.
The defects run wide and deep
Just as every past agony of U.S. history resulted in a deepening of the American experience and a strengthening of the American Proposition about human freedom so the Negro crisis, by pressing hard upon the long-standing defects of U.S. communities, can make us understand how much is unnecessarily faulty in American life, white as well as black. For instance, we now begin to understand that much more than formal “equality” is needed to make the school system effective for the children of the Negro poor. Now we can see how special government and corporation educational programs, using methods different from those of the school system, are producing astonishingly good results among Negro dropouts. Thus we acquire a comparative basis for judging how inflexible, unimaginative, unenterprising, and ineffective our bureaucratically ossified school system, in toto, has become. The drive for substantial improvement of Negro education may show us how to construct, for all children, a far better school system than the one we now have.
To take another example, the Job Corps, assigned to make employables out of unemployable youngsters, found that 80 percent of its applicants had not seen a doctor or dentist for ten years. This tells us something about the health condition of the poor. It also provides a clue to a more general, if less obvious, defect in U.S. society: the organizational weakness of its medical services, which for over twenty years failed to react to the plainly predictable shortage of doctors and nurses that is now upon us. If community medical services could be quickly set up to give adequate medical care to the children of the poor, this would require so many doctors, nurses, and technicians that not enough would be left–nor could they soon be trained–to care for the children of the rich.
For whom is the U.S. fit?
Atlanta has had for many years a far more vigorous and forward-looking leadership than most U.S. cities. Even so, Atlanta today is not making much progress with such problems as mounting racial segregation within city neighborhoods, overburdened schools in Negro areas, and the flight of middle-income whites to surrounding counties–an exodus that, of course, severely limits the central city’s ability to provide adequate services for its resident population. It is interesting to note that on simpler problems, not specifically connected with race, Atlanta is in grave trouble. For instance, the relatively new Northeast Expressway links Atlanta with DeKalb County, whose well-to-do population has grown in twenty-seven years from 87,000 to 360,000. Between 7:00 and 9:00A.M. and between 4:00 and 6:00P.M. expressway traffic creeps, fume-hung and thwarted. Its Brookwood interchange, built to take a maximum of 52,500 cars a day, is now burdened with 122,000 cars. No doubt, a suburban resident who has to spend hours on that road is still better off than Negroes living along an unpaved street of Atlanta’s Summerhill district. But the failure of Atlanta to solve its transportation problems gives a large part of the answer as to why that city–along with many others—is grinding toward a halt in its sincere efforts to ameliorate its racial conflicts.
The nationwide sluggishness and ineptitude in dealing with change does not apply only to government agencies. The universities and the whole intellectual community have not been much interested in the problems of the city. American business, busily generating change, has in the main stood apart from the responsibilities–and the opportunities–of coping with the community needs that arise from change. Within the past year, and largely as a response to the race crisis, this business attitude toward the problems of the city is shifting. The ardent efforts of the nation’s business institutions will be especially needed, because they have qualities specifically demanded by the double crisis of the Negro and the city. Modern corporations are flexible and innovative. They are accustomed to sensing and meeting and evoking the changing desires of the public. Above all, they practice the difficult art of mobilizing specialized knowledge for action–i.e., the art of mediating progress, of managing change.
As the U.S. begins to apply its immense public and private resources to creating the future of the city, it should remember to keep the two crises in perspective. The Negro protest has performed the service of awakening us to our society’s weakness. And we cannot deal with Negro unrest without remedying social defects that extend far beyond the Negro problem. In short, the U.S. cannot be made fit for the black man unless it is also made fit for the white man.
Expectations—too high and too low
This word “fit” implies a criterion that is not self-evident. The U.S., from time to time in the past, has been fit, in the sense of not deeply and obviously disturbed. The state of the nation has not declined in any way that can be measured on scales of quantity. Materially, all groups, even the vast majority of Negroes, have much more than their grandfathers and fathers had. U.S. Negroes in the aggregate have income and educational levels about the same as the population of Great Britain. By what standard, then, can the level of U.S. life, black or white, be judged inadequate, unfit?
Another element must be inserted into the criterion, an element very hard to measure or define. In most of the world there is a spreading, deepening sense that individuals, communities, and nations have much more ability to get things done than they used to have. This ability to move toward where we want to go–or ought to go–is called “power,” which, in all its conjunct and disjunct forms (technological, organizational, communicatory), is increasing everywhere. The statement that the U.S. is unfit implies a judgment that we are failing in the sense that we now have the capability of making this nation a much better place to live in than it is. The idea that power is rising expands the idea of duty, or responsibility. Nobody can be blamed, or blame himself, for not doing what he can’t; when he can and doesn’t, unrest, internal conflict, and shame may result.
Referring usually to underdeveloped countries, this new kind of unrest is called “the revolution of rising expectations.” In case after case the expectations, individual and national, outrun any practical possibility that enough power can be applied to satisfy them in the near future. This overexpectation is not universal. One finds around the world many examples of peoples accepting, in one or another area of their lives, unfavorable conditions, material and immaterial, that would seem to an outsider quite possible of correction. “Low expectations” can be said to characterize the British standard of an acceptable economic growth rate, the Russian standard of an acceptable level of civil liberties or consumer goods, or the standard that Ireland accepts about how old a man should be to marry.
To view or to participate?
The double crisis in the U.S. can be seen as a rear-end collision in which accelerating Negro expectations have rammed into the sluggish tendency of American whites to demand too little of the quality of life in the city and to appraise too humbly the quality of citizenship that the city of the future should demand of them. Many Negroes are now insisting upon faster progress than it may be possible for the U.S. to deliver even under optimum circumstances–even assuming, that is to say, a rapid regeneration of the city. Until the 1950’s, U.S. Negroes were as a group characterized by very low expectations and an even lower assessment of the power they might be able to exercise within the nation. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education touched off a campaign to enforce school desegregation, Negro demands on society began to rise very rapidly. Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 was an early example of the successful application of power. In the Sixties, Negroes had further experience of political power in the passage of civil-rights laws stronger than most observers had believed possible.
In ten years U.S. Negroes were transformed from an apathetic group, hard to organize or stir, to a position of extreme discontent and militancy that characterizes the modern world’s high-expectation peoples. But when Negroes turned from such mainly symbolic goals as civil-rights legislation to the hard practicalities that could be won only at the level of the city, they began to experience intense frustration culminating in the 1967 riots. Not for the first time in history, a group that had been peacefully apathetic in extremely adverse circumstances turned rebellious after it had begun to feel its power and after some of its worst grievances were on the way to redress.
Television played an important part in this amazing upsurge of the Negro’s demands. Into his living room was projected the white man’s living room, the white man’s glamorized life. Into the Negro’s ears and eyes the TV commercials beat their insistent message of more, better, greater. In one sense, this was constructive-the old American warning against the acceptance of things as they are. Negroes wanted to participate–actually and not merely as “viewers” in this exciting and powerful society that surrounded them. But as desire rose and was not soon requited, frustration rose, too. Conflict appeared on the Negro’s television screen, most dramatically in the Birmingham riots of 1963. All over the U.S., Negroes saw Bull Connor’s dogs; more precisely, they felt Bull Connor’s dogs. A white teacher in Long Island, who had many friends among Negro youngsters, remembers that in the days after the Birmingham riots hostility that he had never noticed before glared at him from the kids’ eyes. Frustrated Negroes all over the nation were suddenly prepared to listen to messages of hate from Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
Rebellion plus paralysis
The resulting situation, the one the U.S. is now seized with, has been called “revolutionary”–not a word to be tossed around lightly. By itself, the rebellious mood of many Negroes would not constitute a revolutionary danger in a strong society that ought to be able to deal with such a thrust by some combination of concession and repression. But all truly revolutionary situations are marked by paralysis above as well as by insurrection below. The term “Negro revolution” must be taken seriously because its present battleground is at the level of the city, and at this level U.S. society has been half-paralyzed for decades. Last summer’s riots were a warning that the city, facing violent upheaval, may be so functionally weak and confused that it will neither be able to concede what Negroes justly demand nor to repress the unlawful tactics that spring from the frustration of such demands.
It will be useless to counsel Negroes to patience unless there is among whites a visibly rising impatience to improve our civilization. The city is functionally enfeebled for reasons that pertain mainly to white, not black, America. The dominant race, so enterprising in its individual and corporate pursuits and so proudly resolute in the deployment of its national power in space exploration and war, has neglected a level in between. American whites have been unwilling to mobilize their material, intellectual, and aesthetic resources to achieve better communities, better ways of living together.
Like all the low-expectation peoples, we are uneasily half-aware that we have the power–and, therefore, the duty–to achieve a better life, and our failure to act in civil affairs upon this gnawing intimation of our strength leaves us feeling guilty and insecure. It is this demoralized side of U.S. white society that the Negro, himself disordered by injustice and frustration, now confronts.
The distance between man and myth
As Plato discovered, the state is the product of a state of mind, the political reflection of how a people views its own nature. Our state of mind contains a yawning discrepancy between what we are and what we pretend to be. Our public myth is too remote from our actual lives.
The U.S. in the twentieth century is an urban nation, not in some superficial sense of its population densities, but in the fundamental sense that it is made up of diverse people, pluralistic in belief and habit, who live by exchanging the products of very different and highly specialized skills. A high degree of interdependence among heterogeneous inhabitants is the key characteristic of the modern city–what sets it apart from the typical agrarian society where each family unit, approaching economic self-sufficiency, tends to work and to live in approximately the same way as every other family unit. Even our farmers today are specialists–and in that fundamental sense share the urban characteristic of almost total interdependence with other farmers and with nonfarmers. Our actual lives are lived in huge organizations joined by intricate market networks and systems of transportation and communication-one vast, teeming, roaring, coast-to-coast bazaar.
But that is not how we think of ourselves. The dominant American social myth is still Thomas Jefferson’s set of values and ideals, which assumes a loosely knit and lightly organized society of independent farmers. This vision was and is contemptuous of cities and of those who dwell therein. The American ethos applauds Cowley’s verse: “God the first garden made, and the first city Cain.” The American dream of beauty tends to seek the unpeopled tops of mountains or to linger on solitary, separated men brooding by Walden Pond, toiling in forest clearings.
Flight to the minifarmhouse
The agrarian myth reinforced itself by becoming the selective standard by which Americans chose which parts of their total experience to cherish and enshrine in memory, which to repress and forget. In the nineteenth century two tremendous American efforts were more or less simultaneously carried out: the conquest of the continent by small farmers and the assimilation of masses of immigrants (and of rural Americans) by the cities. In terms of the American Proposition implicit in the Constitution–the Proposition that assumes its principles to be applicable to all men who choose to accept freedom and responsibility–the achievement of the cities was at least equal to that of the pioneers who so fearlessly braved the poison-ivied woods across the Shenandoah.
But our hero-selection apparatus decreed that the conquest of the wilderness should be the one great American epic, while the Americanization and urbanization of the peasant hordes should be regarded almost as a discreditable episode. As the nineteenth century neared its end, Frederick Jackson Turner was delivering, over and over again, his extravagant and influential homage to the pioneer, his lecture called The Winning of the West, while Lincoln Steffens was writing The Shame of the Cities. Though he excoriated the corrupt political machines, Steffens was perceptive enough to recognize how their warmth contributed to the assimilation of the strangers and the poor. (“Tammany kindness is real kindness, and will go far, remember long, and take infinite trouble for a friend.”) But this constructive function of city machine politics was rejected by the all-powerful anti-urban bent of the American value system. When, in 1960, a Boston Irishman whose grandparents had been associated with one of those machines became the first true child of the city elected President of the United States, even he made his compulsory obeisance to the dominant agrarian myth by naming his Administration “the New Frontier.”
Television, that great engine of mythology, is both the victim and the exploiter of frontiersmanship. Imagine the cries of anguish and outrage that would arise if TV presented to our children some dramas of the urban struggles and triumphs of the 1880’s, including (as realism would require) a little indoor bribery and corruption. Respectable Americans would insist that children’s TV continue to be monopolized by the winning of the West, where nothing more unedifying occurs than red-blooded American outdoor homicide.
For generations we were taught to despise our cities until they became, indeed, despicable. Their demoralization and decline hastened-and were hastened by-the flight of millions of Americans to the suburbs, in which each man can act out the agrarian fantasy by owning a minifarmhouse behind a minimeadow, where no mule grazes. In certain political and social arrangements, too, the suburbanites realized the agrarian daydream. These bedroom communities, though economically and culturally dependent on the core cities and on one another, adopted political forms of local government appropriate for isolated Vermont mountain villages a hundred years ago. In their social make-up, the suburbs increasingly reflected the agrarian ideal of homogeneity. Those developed before 1925 had a fairly wide range of lot size, price, and architectural style, and attracted a diverse population; that is to say, early suburbs were socially somewhat like cities. But decade by decade, suburbs become more sharply stratified as to income level, house style, and life style. (“We like to live with our own kind of people.”) The peasant daydream obsessed the nation, which, in its actual life, was moving further and further from its peasant past.
The Americanization of Mike
Up until the 1920’s, cities, towns, and suburbs had shown a healthy tendency to coalesce politically as their built-up areas came in contact with one another and as their economic interdependence increased. But then the trend toward annexation and consolidation slowed down, especially around the older cities. The fluidity of the city began to clot. Failure of political forms to follow the patterns of actual life indicated that some maleficent chemistry, some poison, was at work in the public mind. The stockade mentality-keep out the barbarians, “the others”–was curdling the idea of the city.
Fear of the Negro was not the precipitating agent of this change; it began before he was an important presence in most cities outside the South. Until quite recent years, the whites fleeing to suburbia were not running away from the Negro but from one another and from the challenges of urban life. But the triumph of suburbia and the anti-urban psychology that it represents have indeed become a major element in creating both the present Negro crisis and the crisis of the city. When millions of Negroes during and after World War II began flowing out of rural areas, the host cities were less capable of performing for them the assimilative function that had been successful decades ago for other ethnic groups. Racial bigotry was, of course, the most conspicuous element in this failure, but the deeper cause was a general anti-urban regression, which between 1900 and 1940 had affected the value system of white society and consequently weakened the vigor of its urban institutions.
In the nineteenth century the city had had a strong, though often unofficial and corrupt, government. When the backroom boys in the clubhouse said, “We’ve got to take care of Mike,” they had in mind the whole range of Mike’s problems of adjusting to American life–his illiteracy and incompetence, his wife’s alcoholism, his kids’ delinquency. Such help as the clubhouse could give was inexpert and performed at a heavy, though hidden, social cost by such devices as loading city and traction company payrolls with incompetent workers. Mike’s life, uprooted by migration, was a bruising experience; nevertheless, Mike knew that in many ways the clubhouse–and, therefore, City Hall–was on his side, that it was aware of him in his whole humanity, that it was trying to sell him and his family a way of life, and even that it was responsive to his preferences. From the day he got off the boat, Mike, in a way, belonged. A reciprocal awareness, a mutual trust, between Mike and what we would now nil “the power structure” was crucial to the Americanization of Mike and, ultimately, to the upward mobility of his descendants.
The stockades of bureaucracy
The Negro found no such warmth. By the time he got to the city, the clubhouse–and City Hall, too–had been castrated. Mayors still got their names in newspapers, but if they tried to do anything about their mounting responsibilities, they discovered, first, that a high proportion of talented citizens had moved out to the minimeadows and, second, that City Hall did not really control the autonomous departments into which urban services had become clotted.
When the government of the city became more efficiently recast in the bureaucratic mold, a terrible price was exacted: there was no longer a whole government to which a whole man could relate. The school system, for example, was a stockade, almost impervious to the wishes of the mayor, the council, the parents, and the electorate. It had a board, supposedly in charge, but since the members of the board were laymen, they were usually front men for the administrators who garrisoned the educational stockade. What instrument of the public will could evaluate how well a school system performed its function? Busily, the educationists evaluated themselves–and rarely found themselves seriously at fault.
So it ran through all the autonomous stockades of public service. When in 1965 John Lindsay was elected Mayor of New York, one of his first big fights was over the degree of control he could exercise over the police department. “Keep City Hall’s hands off the police,” was the cry of his opponents. Remembering the more corrupt past, one can empathize with this attitude. On the other hand, how can the citizen-especially the lowly citizen, the citizen who presents himself for assimilation–how can he mentally and emotionally connect himself to the police if not through City Hall? The lowly citizen had been told this is a democracy; but police departments that ran themselves, school systems that ran themselves, did not seem to fit what he had been told. The antisepsis of bureaucratic municipal government killed a lot of inefficiency and corruption; it killed, too, a lot of connective tissue and a lot of nerve ganglia that had previously united citizen and city.
The rejection of Jeff
Look at the post-1940 American city from below, from the viewpoint of Mike’s successor, Jefferson Truegood, half-literate Negro product of a rural southern school, incompetent as Mike had been incompetent, and, like Mike, bewildered and beset. Who looked at Jeff whole? Who wanted Jeff, even for such selfish reasons as the political bosses and the robber barons of yore had wanted Mike? Who in the governmental power structure of the city was trying to persuade Jeff of anything? Who gave a damn what Jeff thought?
Although the school system was better than it had been in Mike’s day, it wouldn’t do anything about his children’s teeth. That belonged to another department. If the kids started getting into trouble, that was still a different department, in blue uniforms–one that didn’t really pay any attention to what had happened at school or what hadn’t happened in a dentist’s chair. There were, too, the social workers, rigidly and uncorruptibly channeled by law and rule, complex conduits through which welfare money might or might not flow to Jeff, depending on whether in any month his objective circumstances could be squared with a set of standards that neither Jeff nor the social worker had established, and that neither believed in.
Each fragment of the city apparatus assumed that it knew better than Jeff about the corresponding fragment of his life. But Jeff wasn’t a fragment, and there was nothing in the structure of the city to which the whole Jeff could attach himself, no point at which he could experience the reciprocal awareness, the mutual trust, of citizen and city.
“Alienation” is an obese word, but it begins to have more pith and point if you get out on the streets and ask Negroes what and whom they hate most. High on ‘their hate list are social workers, teachers, hospital staff-all the people who have been trying to help this fragment or that fragment of a Negro’s life. This attitude is, of course, unfair. These people are only doing their jobs, performing services as prescribed by law. But the Negro hates them because they are his points of contact with a system that insists that he travel all the way to meet its terms, a system that has lost its unity, its heart, that will not reach out with warmth toward where he is, a system where municipal institutions are no longer stirred by the great missionary and merchandising cry: “Bring them in!”
No bridges to the larger world
Since Mike’s day, the city to which Jeff aspired had changed economically even more than governmentally. Mike had had nothing to offer but his muscle-but muscle then was in demand. The economic city gave Mike a meager and precarious living, but its need for Mike was obvious, and its upward paths, though Mike himself would have little chance to tread them, were visibly accessible to his children.
By Jeff’s day the muscle market had narrowed and declined. Business, pursuing its own upward mobility, had come to depend more and more on educated workers, inured to industrial discipline. In business, too, specialization and bureaucracy now ruled. Companies became departmentalized, and jobs were defined by rigid sets of special qualifications that applicants had to meet. At the nethermost levels of the employment market, tests frequently screened Jeff out of jobs he could, in fact, perform. By Jeff’s day, moreover, it had become harder for Negroes than it had been for members of preceding ethnic groups to found small businesses that might serve as bridges to the larger business world.
The damage done by this exclusion was more than economic. In Mike’s day the American business system, in addition to paying Mike, had been one of the great paths of his social and political assimilation to the city. At work Mike learned new forms of joint effort, learned to mingle with men from other lands and with indigenous inhabitants of the city. At work he glimpsed the great lessons of the division of labor, the high social, political, and moral implications of cooperation and competition that underlie the life of trade.
Jeff was shut out from all this-or admitted sporadically and in circumstances that failed to convey to him a sense of opportunity. He could not even tell himself that his children had a solid chance of getting ahead. They were better educated than he, but the economic system kept demanding more and more training; the gap between his children and the system might be as wide as it had been for Jeff himself.
Increasingly, Negroes react with distrust to their rejection by the city. They think they live in the debris of broken promises–the fundamental democratic promise they learned in school and the more recent promises that seemed to be implied by Supreme Court civil-rights decisions and by the War on Poverty. Whites are not the only targets of distrust. One Negro, who has worked in neighborhoods for the Office of Economic Opportunity, put his head in his hands and mourned: “I have completely lost credibility on my turf.”
The masters corrupt the slaves
Out of this distrust of white society rose the slogan Black Power. The term has many meanings, some consonant with the idea of the city, some subversive of it. Were the city itself in good health, Black Power might be a natural and wholesome development, a repetition of the experience of many other ethnic groups whose assimilation to America has included the conscious mobilization of their political power. It is natural and wholesome that Negroes, angry at the schools’ failure with their children, should seek to control school boards. If Negroes believe that the police harass their race, they have the right to try to take charge, through the ballot box, of the police departments. Perhaps they could teach the whites how to reinvigorate the fragmented services of the city.
But the city has already deteriorated to the point where no such constructive outcome of rising Negro political power can be expected. In trying to run the cities, Negroes will face the same formidable array of difficulties that the whites have failed to overcome. The day after the election of a Negro mayor in Cleveland, a Negro in another city said: “God help Carl Stokes. Two months after he takes office Cleveland Negroes will be bitter and impatient because Carl hasn’t solved their problems.”
In its more extreme forms, in the speeches of Stokely Carmichael, for example, Black Power seems to turn its back upon the hope of integration and seeks a separated Negro community. Commenting on this kind of Black Power, Eric Hoffer, philosopher and retired longshoreman, said in a memorable C.B.S. interview, “Nobody can give you power. Power doesn’t come in cans. When I hear Carmichael he’s always asking, ‘Give me the can opener so I’ll open the cans of power and eat them.’ ”
Black power will in practice mean more segregation, more atomized local sovereignty, more descent toward the anticity, the condition where there is no power because there is no cooperation, no love, no sense of common danger and common destiny. The future of the city will not be served if the housing projects and the slums become stockades of the kind of narrow separatism that permeates the stockades in the minimeadows.
It is deeply significant that the idea of Black Power is already getting in the way of what needs to be done to reconstruct the city. For years, everybody who has looked seriously at the problems of metropolitan areas has known that they needed to be much more closely knit in order to deal with such metropolitan problems as transportation, air pollution, etc. Such common-sense proposals for cooperation have been frustrated for all these decades by the separatism of the upwardly mobile whites in the suburbs who feared that closer political association with the core cities would drag them down. Now–and here’s an irony bitter as brass–the Negroes in the core cities are also opposing any form of general metropolitan government, because they fear such proposals would forestall their impending electoral capture of city halls. “The ghetto,” in short, begins to imitate the suburbs. The masters have indeed corrupted the slaves.
The vision of Harv Oostdyk
In this article not much has been said about racial hatred itself as a danger to the future of the city. Not much will be said, because no man knows how deep and how durable racial hatred will prove to be. No psychologist has the tools to measure it, much less the therapy to banish it. We can see, however, that racial tension has increased because of the deep defects in the life of the city. We can believe that a contrary process might be set in motion, that racial tension will diminish and perhaps disappear if we put our hands, white and black, earnestly to the task of building the practical and spiritual bridges of community.
We know that when society reaches for him with warmth, the Negro responds. In Harlem for several years a young white man named Harv Oostdyk has been running what he calls “street academies.” The idea is to find high-school dropouts and prepare them for college. It works. Why? What expertise resides in Oostdyk and his fellows that the school system does not possess? It’s not a matter of expertise, but of attitude. Oostdyk doesn’t unlock his door and wait for Negro youths, avid for opportunity, to knock. His people roam the streets and haunt the pool parlors, looking for prospects. “What our street workers must have is charisma,” says Oostdyk. “They have to get over to the kids the fact that we care.”
Oostdyk’s approach is marked by a very real respect for the knowledge already in the heads of Negro dropouts. “You’ve got to know a lot to survive on these streets. These kids know how the numbers game works, what cop is on the take from whom. Suffering and struggle has built a great foundation in these kids. They have a language, very expressive and colorful. The school system says forget all that nasty stuff and don’t use your language. Put all that out of your head and let us fill it with something else. The kids won’t do it. But if you respect what they know, you can help them to build other knowledge on that. If you respect their language you can teach them ours while you’re learning theirs.”
Oostdyk thinks he knows a way to bring more of them in. From a battered desk he pulls FORTUNE’s list of the five hundred largest U.S. industrial companies. Communicating a vision, he stares at the first page of the list and says: “What do these streets know of the world of these companies? What do the people who run these companies know of these streets? The only business you see around here are bars, beauty parlors, fish-and-chips shops. Suppose we could get twenty-five of the biggest corporations into Harlem, each with a storefront or a whole building that says General Motors or Bell Telephone or Standard Oil or General Electric, and inside what’s going on are programs–different kinds of programs–for helping these people find themselves. That would put the symbol of American industry back on these streets. It would show the people the way into the structure. Think what that might do for the unity of this country. Think how that might change the way things will be twenty years from now.”
The vision of Harv Oostdyk is a remarkably urban vision. It has that vertical reach, that welcome to diversity, that clasp of the unfamiliar, that sweet itch for tomorrow. All of these qualities belonged to the idea of the city before the idea of the city disappeared behind the white picket fences.
Business lifts its sights
Oostdyk’s emphasis on the potential role of business in resolving the double crisis is widely echoed. Of course, the more congealed liberals (e.g., John Kenneth Galbraith), whose opinions on this subject entered a zone of permafrost in the 1930’s, continue to doubt that business can be the agent of the kind of social advance that is needed. But the leaders of the government of the U.S. believe it. Negroes believe it. Business is the one important segment of society Negroes today do not regard with bitter disillusionment. And thousands of businessmen across the nation, getting involved in the struggle to restore social cohesion, are beginning to lift their sights, to sense that business has indeed a great part to play.
It has, in fact, three parts. The first relates directly to the crisis in relations between the Negro and the rest of U.S. society. Business must reach down for the “unemployable” Negro by lowering its standards of entry, by developing training programs, by making visible and practical the upward career paths Negroes can tread. In the short run, the costs of such efforts will outweigh the return, but modern business willingly incurs many costs that will not come home as revenues for years and years. Looking ahead, an executive can tell his stockholders that he is enriching his supply of future labor-and his future markets. A moral motive is even more pertinent. In the U.S., the role of business is so important that it cannot escape a large share of responsibility for the health of the society.
The second role of business relates to the crisis of the city. Over the last thirty years a tremendously fruitful connection or, as they say, an “interface, ” has been developed between the corporate world and the federal government. Business has served government well with the products of its innovative spirit–and been handsomely paid. More significant than that, however, is the fact that the general quality of both business and government has been enormously improved by their intimate and massive association.
No such interface exists between the great corporations and the governmental units at the subfederal level. Opening up before us is an era of the “public market” where men will want more and more goods and services of the kind that no individual can buy for himself. His communities will need to buy for him cleaner air and rivers, better scientific research, better techniques of learning, better traffic movement. If these demands are to be met, great corporations will almost certainly play a large part in supplying them.
Across this interface one can see opportunities for the mutual improvement in the quality of corporation life and in the quality of the city. The companies will confirm their reputation of public service, increasingly important to the morale of their employees, especially their technical and managerial staff. The communities will gain a sense of vigor, of forward motion they so grievously now lack.
From this interface there also may evolve greater cohesion between the geographically fragmented communities and between the bureaucratically fragmented services in any community. The federal-corporation interface has developed, in part through systems analysis, powerful techniques to coordinate disparate activities performed by independent centers of decision. One can imagine, say, a private contractor selling an antipollution service to fifty neighboring towns and cities. A dream? Yes, the kind that would be hard reality today if more businessmen and public officials had dreamed it twenty years ago. It would be ironic if we needed systems analysis, computers, and great corporations to help restore the unity of the city, the humanity that the clubhouse boys in their sloppy way attained generations ago.
The third business role in the double crisis gets even closer to the heart of the matter, the nitty-gritty. Big business, the city, and the Negro have something in common: all three are victims of the tyranny of the agrarian myth over the American mind. By publicly taking its stand on the side of the city and the Negro, business can help to restore its own reputation and its own internal morale. The enemies of the business world today cannot gain much rhetorical yardage by denouncing business for sucking the blood of the poor, grinding the faces of the workers, or selfishly holding back the march of progress. Today’s indictment of business has its roots in the agrarian prejudice against bigness, complexity, organization, and diversity. Ideals derived from the society of small farmers, where every producer did about the same kind of work, form the basis for the contemporary smear against business. These accusations hurt. They influence antitrust policy on mergers. They interfere with business efforts to recruit bright young men and women.
Nor is its public repute the most important area in which business suffers at the hands of modern Druids, the tree worshipers, the lovers of the fiat and localized life. The morale of business is sapped day after day because its managers and its workers live in a society where the dominant myth holds that the ideal human condition is that of the yeoman tilling his own soil with his own mule, harvesting his own rye, and cooking his own whiskey by the light of his own moon. Such is the power of the myth that many a successful business executive misses some of the relish of business because he feels twinges of guilt at having deserted the simple life.
The triple alliance in Detroit
The big American corporation, looked at as a community, is the American institution nearest in its character to what the city ought to be. The corporation can stretch into any part of the world, deal attentively with any race or culture. It can combine to a unified purpose the most disparate skills, holding internal order amidst the brisk dash of rivalrous opinions. It constitutes a forum and it walks in the marketplace– and these two, forum and market, are the spiritual hallmarks of the city. The corporation can help the Negro join the city, help the city become worthy again of the Negro and the white. Corporation, city, and Negro, forming a natural triple alliance against their common enemy, the modern Druids, can spur the U.S. toward social reconstruction.
In Detroit these days, one can feel the rightness of this alliance. The trauma of the summer’s riots has deeply depressed a city administration that had tried, perhaps more intelligently than any other in the nation, to fore3tall them. But leadership in rising from the riots has passed from the city administration to a body called the New Detroit Committee. Its membership ranges from an eighteen-year-old Negro militant to the heads of the three great auto companies.
They are determined to resurrect Detroit, not just the physically damaged areas, but the immaterial city, the web of human relations, laws, customs, manners, and practices that stretches through that metropolitan area. Suddenly, it seems right and natural that Henry Ford II should walk alone on Twelfth Street to call upon the Reverend Albert Cleage, leader of the Negro militants. It seems right and natural that the heads of the three auto companies should journey to Lansing to lobby vehemently among legislators for an open-occupancy law. True, the vast majority of Detroit Negroes don’t have any direct and immediate personal interest in open occupancy. But the New Detroit Committee was right to give priority to the open-occupancy bill; their stand makes clear the committee’s determination to combat the anticity, to diminish the separationist tendencies of the whites. It seems right and natural that the committee’s chairman, young Joseph Hudson Jr., of the department-store family, should be spending most of his time on the future of his city, sending missionary speakers to explain core-city problems to suburban meetings and listening carefully to what the Negroes in “the ghetto” want. “We’re going to lick this thing,” says Joe Hudson.
Business, of course, cannot perform alone the job of rescuing the city. All U.S. institutions, from street gangs to churches, must be involved in the effort. The federal government, especially, will be essential both in providing funds and in keeping public attention fixed on the urgency and gravity of the crisis. Much harm was done this fall by congressional threats to cut deeply into antipoverty-program funds; Negroes felt that another promise was being broken. Perhaps the most important new example of federal-local cooperation is the “model cities” program with its stress on the services and functions of the city rather than on bricks and mortar.
The dream of the busy streets
No one can foreordain what the material city of the future ought to look like. Perhaps it will be all suburbs. Perhaps it will be a ring around an open space, a doughnut city. Its physical shape matters much less than its spiritual character. The actual minimeadows, the ones we fondly lime in March, are innocent enough; what imperils our nation are the minimeadows that these symbolize, the minimeadows of the mind. To build the immaterial city we must begin by cleansing ourselves of the inappropriate myth, the value system that clashes with our social nature and our destiny.
Cast down the idols. Level the pious memory of Fort Mims, the bloody stockade on the Tombigbee, built to defend one race against another. Dethrone Daniel Boone, or, at least, so limit, balance, and constitutionalize his mythic monarchy that the American soul will open again to its other dream–not the dream of lonely peak and quiet pond, but the dream of the busy streets, the dream of strangers who become as brothers, the dream of the unfenced society, the dream of the city.
The farm is where we’ve been; the city’s where we’re headed. Long, long ago Western man left the woodsy local, tribal gods for a concept of universal Deity which implies universal brotherhood. This basic change in belief had intellectual and political implications. Gradually, it opened our minds to science and our political institutions to the concepts of diversity and freedom. The American Proposition commits us to the city, to the life of tolerance, to the earnest quest for civic competence, to the forum, to the market, to the society where what we learn can be put to the use of all of us. We can’t turn back. Lingering looks behind only confuse the line of march.
“Like it says in the third chapter of Genesis, if you got this knowledge, man, if you got this power to choose, then you got this serpent, man, this worm of destruction. He’ll do you in if you don’t choose right.”