Politics and Policy in the Post-Civil Rights City

AHA Session 210
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 202 (Hynes Convention Center)
Heather Thompson, Temple University
Rhonda Y. Williams, Case Western Reserve University

Session Abstract

With notable exceptions, historians have tended to be largely absent from discussions of racial politics, urban life, and political mobilization around inequality in the Post-Civil Rights/Black Power era; leaving the field to political scientists, sociologists, and interdisciplinary scholars who have written most of the literature on these issues. Much of this existing literature portrays the period between the late 1960s and 1990s as an era of urban demobilization and civic disengagement in the wake of Civil Rights and Black Power movements or chronicles the rise of the political Right and suburban politics. These narratives highlight the power of “white flight” in stripping many cities of their tax base, as the population of minority—often African American—residents increased proportionally. Urban communities are often depicted as wastelands of poverty, pathology, crime, and decline where residents were too disfranchised or focused on survival to be politically engaged. While these narratives provide insights into historical circumstances of particular strata within urban communities, they do not seem to adequately account for the range of political activity within these communities during this period. Further, they fail to adequately interrogate historical transformations in the political, economic, and legal relationship between the state and urban communities. This panel seeks to further understandings of the politics and policies of urban communities in the late twentieth century. Taking an historical approach to this period illuminates neglected elements of the era and accounts for historical transformations in racial politics and policy at a critical juncture in American history. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor investigates the ways in which federal housing and community development policies played a central role in the persistence of poverty, blight, and segregation in Black communities in Chicago and Detroit. Jessica Neptune explores the racial politics of the Rockefeller drug laws, shifts to embrace the punitive, retributive penal philosophies, and how these shifts impacted communities within New York City. Elizabeth Todd analyzes transformations in modes of Black political organizing in Chicago around inequities in public education in the Post-Civil Rights era. Together these papers further our understanding of the racial politics of urban America in the 1970s-1980s. They contribute to a growing literature interrogating late twentieth century US History and provide an important historical perspective to a topic area previously addressed largely in other disciplines. Further, this panel uniquely addresses the meeting's theme, “History, Society, and the Sacred.” These papers are clearly linked to issues of history, change over time, and society, the lived reality of daily life. However, these papers are also concerned with the sacred; not in a strictly religious sense, but in the broader sense of what people hold sacred. For what do people hold more sacred than their homes, the right to—or the infringement upon—one's liberties, and the education of one's children? This panel poses important questions about the relationship between citizens, communities, and the state that still animate our politics and national discourse today.

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