The Violence of Systems: Race and Neoliberal Governance in the Post-Civil Rights Era
The years of the Civil Rights Movement and its immediate aftermath saw a marked increase in African American political incorporation in the United States under the banner of pluralistic liberalism. However, much of the grassroots activism in which African Americans politically engaged during this period rejected the framework of liberalism in favor of alternatives ranging from Marxism to cultural nationalism to highly localized participatory democracy. This ideological friction in turn shaped the agendas of African American politicians and the stance of African American activists towards the (at least superficially) more inclusive state, especially at the postindustrial urban scale. To what degree, then, did African Americans move (or move the ideas and issues shaping their politics at the neighborhood level) from the racially defined social and economic margins to the political mainstream under "late liberalism," and what was gained – and lost – in the process?
The papers in this session address these questions by examining the successes and failures of four distinct efforts to reframe municipal and state politics with African Americans at the center. In "A Sense of Equality: African American Political Incorporation and the Democratic Party in California," Hillary Jenks examines the statehouse career of California politician Mervyn Dymally. The class-conscious anticolonialism he absorbed as a youth in Trinidad influenced his understanding of the "place" of African Americans and other people of color within pluralistic 1960s and ‘70s California, even as the liberal structure of the state’s Democratic party politics limited his ability to enact legislation redressing economic devastation in his South Los Angeles district. Alyssa Ribiero’s paper, "'Let the Riders Speak': Transit Activism in North Philadelphia," explores African Americans’ efforts to contest local government funding decisions that increasingly restricted their ability to migrate across the urban landscapes of Philadelphia in the 1970s and ‘80s. Resident groups, believing neighborhood services should take precedence over downtown development, mobilized as consumers to preserve transit accessibility. In "'You Can’t Put Them All In Jail': Mayor Bradley, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the War on Drugs during the 1980s," Max Felker-Kantor identifies the political limits faced by Tom Bradley, the pioneering African American mayor of Los Angeles, as he negotiated African American residents’ anger over police brutality with demands by the LAPD, and many voters, to combat crime. The pluralism of Bradley’s administration was thus accompanied by the widespread criminalization of the city’s youth of color. Finally, Sean Greene’s paper, "Whose Health Care? Black Activism, Public Hospitals, and Claiming a Right to the City in the Post-Civil Rights Era," compares African American activism around the closing of public hospitals in several cities as a lens into the political meaning of access to health care. His work indicates the impact of the shift from late liberal politics to neoliberalism on the opportunities for more radical African American grassroots activism to shape mainstream politics in the United States. Chair and commentator A. Rafik Mohamed will contextualize these papers in the literature on African American activism and political incorporation and survey the issues they raise.