Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Unity and Class Issues in the Black Community, Part I

A wonderful op-ed in this past Sunday's Los Angeles Times about a certain kind of integration reminds us of a vibrant time when the late Judge George W. White was a city councilman.

White was laid to rest last Saturday, rightfully celebrated for many achievements, among them his founding of B.O.S.S. [Blacks Organized for Social Services], a self-help group that later merged with the Negro Community Federation to create the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland. UBF will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary next year.

White was representing Cleveland’s Lee-Seville community in May 1968 when Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes proposed building 274 single-family houses in White’s black middle-class ward. The development was to be on 51 acres of vacant land the city had acquired from the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. 

Coincidentally — or not — White, along with fellow councilmen George Forbes and Leo Jackson, had just been soundly thrashed earlier that month by Louis Stokes, Carl’s brother, in the Democratic primary for the newly-created 21st Congressional District. It is interesting to note that all five of these politicians went on to bigger things.[1]

Councilman White led the opposition to the housing development, arguing that the community already suffered from a dearth of adequate city services, especially police protection. Mayor Stokes labeled White and fellow councilman Clarence Thompson “black bigots” for using tactics similar to those employed by white suburbanites to exclude blacks from their communities.

Economic class was the elephant in the room. White’s constituency was primarily middle-class homeowners; the proposed residents of the development were to be families displaced by urban renewal. The housing was never built, as the all-white anti-Stokes faction in Cleveland’s thirty-three member council were all too happy to side with White and Thompson to punish the mayor.

What happened in Cleveland in 1968 was not unique to that time or this location, as the essay by L. A. Times contributing writer Erin Aubry Kaplan points out:

It wasn't always like this. Economic diversity used to be a given in black communities, and it made them far more cohesive and resilient. Black people now, including my neighbors, talk longingly about those days when the poor lived among the professionals and the working class, and about how we need to get that kind of unity back. The irony is that that cohesion was largely a product of segregation; my father grew up in a segregated neighborhood right in the heart of L.A. While nobody I know is suggesting that we return to the good old days of Jim Crow, the "unity effect" is sorely missed.

These days black unity is a cherished ideal rather than the fact of life that it used to be. Part of the reason is that, since the 1960s and the end of Jim Crow, blacks have lost the thread of their own story. As we have scattered out from our compact communities, a freedom narrative that was once clear and urgent has become muddy and uninspiring, replaced with tons of downward-trending data and statistics that move no one.

The catalyst for Kaplan’s piece is the entry into her Inglewood neighborhood of a Section 8 family. It’s a brief but compelling read. We urge you to check it out and then return here with your thoughts tomorrow for Part II.

[1]  White was appointed a federal judge in 1980. Jackson served on the Eighth District Court of Appeals from 1970 to 1986.  Forbes was president of city council from 1974 to 1989. Lou Stokes won election to Congress in 1968 and served until he retired 30 years later. Carl Stokes completed two terms as mayor and then moved to New York where he became a television reporter and news anchor. He returned to Cleveland in the 1980s and became a Cleveland municipal court judge. His public career culminated with service as US ambassador to the Seychelles.

Note: An earlier version of this post reversed the order of Stokes' judicial and diplomatic service. Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Dick Peery for alerting us to the error.

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