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Do we need riots?

Peter Levine gently takes this and several thoughtful liberal blogs to task for the limited scope of our interests. A few days after a long, excellent and un-track-backed post about the Harlem Children's Zone and its founder, Geoffrey Canada, he points out that "I can sometimes get the attention of the Web's big guns if I opine on political philosophy in relatively general terms. Such editorializing can get me mentioned on Volokh, Crooked Timber, the Decembrist, or Matthew Yglesias. [hmm, one of these things is not like the others...-ms] But when I write about day-to-day social work, such as this interesting experiment in municipal government ... no one in the blogosphere seems to notice." I'm sure he's right about that. And it's a good point. As a representative of the policy-wonk extreme of the blogosphere, it's a surprising thing to realize. These are the things I've always been interested in -- esp. urban policy -- but I don't find myself writing or even thinking about writing about them here.

It's a reminder that, as much as the pluralism and spontaneity of blogs do have the possibility of changing the way we write about and understand public life, it's still mostly more of the same. We do it in our different ways and with different perspectives, but in the end it's still a lot of presidential horserace; a lot of "can-you-f...'in believe the Bush administration?"; some deeper examination and connecting-the-dots one of the week's major stories, and too much intramural blog games. Nor do I signs of some parallel group of either bloggers or traditional journalistic commentators who are closely debating the successes of various urban policy solutions. I'll try to keep Peter's encouragement in mind.

But the point actually reminded me of something I've been thinking about for a couple months, and you'll see the connection in a paragraph or two:

It occurred to recently me that in the mid-1990s, as the economic boom was beginning but widening income disparities also becoming apparent, a number of times I was in situations where I heard a great deal of concern from corporate types -- mainstream Republican or moderate Democratic executives -- about the level of inequality, and the problems of disadvantaged communities. The concern was not particularly driven by compassion or a larger social agenda. It was the traditional driving force that some historians credit for all the social reforms of the last century: Fear. The lid will blow. Something will happen. There will be a backlash. You can't have such enormous disparities and not expect people to react.

Today, perhaps I don't travel in the same circles (although that's not it, because I didn't travel in those circles then either) but I see no trace of similar concern. There is some corporate-leadership concern about the deficit (see the Committee for Economic Development, for example), and high-minded leaders like Bill Gates, Sr. and Warren Buffett, have taken specific stands against repeal of the Estate Tax and the Bush tax agenda. But I haven't seen any evidence of that more useful sense of a broader anxiety about their own scalps that you really need to win business's consent to change -- which will be essential to tax reform, health care reform, and all the other fights ahead. There also seems to be much less interest in urban issues generally than there was a few years ago.

So the question is, was there something different in the 1990s? One reasonable explanation is that the culture of business is different. Even a decade ago, there was a breed of executive that still had vestiges of a traditional sense of responsibility, who worried about his company's long-term prospects but also about the communities in which the company and its employees lived. Now the executives just worry about today's stock price, meeting the quarterly earnings number, their own bonus, and either their next career move or where they can move their headquarters to avoid taxes altogether. And the only fear their icy bones know is the thought that Elliott Spitzer might take their house and put them in jail.

That's actually a good explanation. As I wrote it, it began to seem almost sufficient. But that's not the point I was getting at, so forget it. Let's try an alternative explanation: The Los Angeles riots. (Or, "uprising," as I was long ago taught to call it.) Outside of California, the unraveling that led to 52 deaths, 2,500 injuries and destroyed 1,100 buildings in April 1992 is, I think it's safe to say, a faint recollection, on par with Hurricane Hugo. But for a few years, the riots brought political and business leaders face to face with the reality that poor people without opportunity might not remain docile forever. It led to enormous changes in LA., but also to a federal emphasis on issues of urban poverty even under the first Bush administration, which eventually led to the creation of federal Empowerment Zones and other innovations. Were there such a thing as a blogosphere in 1992-1996, I'm sure that Peter's observation would not have been true. There was just much more interest, generally, in urban conditions at the time.

In the twelve years since LA, there has been remarkably little urban violence in the U.S., and what there has been -- such as in Cincinnati -- has generally stayed focused on the police misconduct that was the spark, and not moved on to engage larger questions of economics and power in the way that L.A's rioters did as the hours went on. Urban and African-American voters are as implacably opposed to the Bush administration and as angry at the current direction of the country as any other reliably Democratic bloc, but there is no sign of actual unrest anywhere. I can't say for sure that it's because things are better, but in general, Harlem, the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, and the other urban areas I'm loosely familiar with seem vastly more full of business, civic life, stable families, and culture than they were in 1992. So it's a good thing, very good. I don't mean to wish for or condone riots, which have many terrible consequences, beyond the violence itself, for racial harmony and many other things. But -- and this is my only point -- it's hard to escape the sense that our politics would be somewhat different, and there might be more worry some about the extremes of income inequality, if the ruling class still had some anxiety about driving the Lexus downtown.

As for the turnaround in urban America, who's responsible for that? That's a big question-- largely it's the doing of people like Geoff Canada, in every community. Their work at rebuilding the fabric of city life benefited from good fortune in long-wave behavioral trends such as the predictable waning of the crack epidemic and the less foreseeable reversal in the teen child-bearing rate. Large-scale government programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, and improvements in service delivery also had something to do with it. The long boom was probably most responsible, as black workers were no longer the last-hired/first-fired of short-term booms like 1986-89, but held on long-enough to get a real toehold in the labor market.

And that, I have no hesitation saying, is Bill Clinton's doing. Ron Brownstein made this point in the LA Times today, but I want to use a more elaborate statistic that includes race and poverty: From 1979 to 1991, the median income of the bottom 40% of African-American households declined by 11% in inflation-adjusted dollars, to a historic low of $8,228 in current dollars. (In other words, 20% of black households had income less than $8,228.) During that Reagan-Bush period, the median income of lower-income white households rose slightly, to $17,586. The racial disparity remains, but during the Clinton years, real median income for lower-income black households rose more than 30%, to $12,245 in 2000, while the same figure for white households was $19,841, about an 8% gain. While none of these are amounts that a family can be expected to live on, the black household is finally at least moving into the same general zone where white families are stagnating.

If this were Bill Clinton's only legacy, it would be a considerable one. Ironically, this success has had the effect of allowing policy makers to turn their attention away from urban issues and racial disparities, and dissipating the anxiety about the cities that drove some positive reforms in the 1990s. On the other hand, it does allow someone like John Edwards to begin to talk about poverty and have it understood that he is talking about white andblack and Hispanic families. It allows for a greater possibility of cross-racial alliances among the poor and on behalf of the poor, as the white and black poor converge. And that is a healthier spur for change than worries about urban unrest could ever be. But now it just has to happen.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 28, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Mark, I'm sure there is a small urban issues community out there, but you won't find it among the bigs, so stop trying. Rest assured though, there's a group of commenters for every issue under the sun. I myself just took a blog tour of female muslims who wear hijabs and write in English. So there's hope for you yet.

Posted by: praktike | Jun 28, 2004 11:24:05 PM

Mark, that was probably one of the best blog posts I've read in a long while. You have my ear on this for sure.

Posted by: Andrew Cholakian | Jun 29, 2004 1:25:25 AM

>

Or through a picket line.

Posted by: Chris Marcil | Jun 29, 2004 4:33:22 PM

Your post was thought provoking, and I'm sure it was written with the most benign of intentions. But before we go getting wistful about urban riots, let's keep two facts in mind: 1. Outbreaks of violence may have temporarily put urban issues on the national agenda, but the attention thus attracted never led to any substantive progress; 2. the declining fear of violence in our major cities has been a major factor in the unprecedented renaissance of many downtowns, and there is nothing--NOTHING--that does more to improve living conditions in our cities than attracting the income-earning middle-classes (and the capital that inevitably follows them). I'm not saying I'm ready to claim victory. There's still a lot of ground to regain before the pernicious cycle of white flight is reversed. But given the terminal prognosis of most cities in the 1980s, this is progress.

Another point: the particular injury of urban unrest is not that it threatens middle class whites, but that it threatens the marginal immigrant populations who call the inner city home. If the threat of violence makes the inner cities inhospitable to recent immigrants, then all is well and truly lost.

Posted by: JohnL | Jun 29, 2004 5:03:37 PM

There are blogs that touch on urban issues with some regularity. I work at a non-profit that does inner city economic development, and I have a blog where I occasionally write about what I see in the course of my job. City Comforts focuses on issues related to space, specifically in cities. David Sucher (the author of City Comforts) also keeps a very good blogroll of people writing about similar issues.

Posted by: Rich | Jun 29, 2004 11:03:05 PM

Mark,

Thanks a lot for the plug. Your readers needn’t be concerned about whether my blog gets enough links of this kind. I can think of several reasons why it shouldn’t be widely cited. But I think you and I agree there’s a bigger issue here. The whole center-left is consumed with electoral strategy (how to beat Bush, and whether he’ll lose) and not concerned enough with developing solutions to poverty. This imbalance is obvious in the left side of the blogosphere as a whole, and also in casual offline conversations and the pages of print journals. I’m not talking about The Decembrist, which is one of the few blogs I’ve bookmarked (because it is substantive). There are a few other examples as well. But I’m talking about the conversations that draw a lot of attention across the most popular blogs. If we wanted to change the world for the better, we’d be consumed with documenting what’s going on and figuring out what works. Electoral strategy would be a secondary topic, except within campaigns. By the way, if we knew what really worked, we’d be able to develop more credible positive programs, and so it would be easier for left-of-center candidates to get elected.

Peter

Posted by: Peter Levine | Jun 30, 2004 7:57:13 AM

Mark,

Thanks a lot for the plug. Your readers needn’t be concerned about whether my blog gets enough links of this kind. I can think of several reasons why it shouldn’t be widely cited. But I think you and I agree there’s a bigger issue here. The whole center-left is consumed with electoral strategy (how to beat Bush, and whether he’ll lose) and not concerned enough with developing solutions to poverty. This imbalance is obvious in the left side of the blogosphere as a whole, and also in casual offline conversations and the pages of print journals. I’m not talking about The Decembrist, which is one of the few blogs I’ve bookmarked (because it is substantive). There are a few other examples as well. But I’m talking about the conversations that draw a lot of attention across the most popular blogs. If we wanted to change the world for the better, we’d be consumed with documenting what’s going on and figuring out what works. Electoral strategy would be a secondary topic, except within campaigns. By the way, if we knew what really worked, we’d be able to develop more credible positive programs, and so it would be easier for left-of-center candidates to get elected.

Peter

Posted by: Peter Levine | Jun 30, 2004 7:57:54 AM

Thought provoking stuff...I was at a dinner party recently and suggested that the best way to put the plight of the working poor on the political agenda would be a rash of Colombia-style kidnappings of prominent businesspeople. Needless to say, this did not go over well.

Posted by: Dave | Jun 30, 2004 6:31:07 PM

Mark and Peter,

I am of two minds on the issue of whether more thoughtful policy discussions on very specific subjects can take place through the blog world. One is that it can't...the nature of the medium is not well suited for it and there is not a critical mass of like-minded folks.

On the other hand, blogging is still in its infancy. Take the case of PhD microeconomists actively involved in high level research on social/education policy (say like David Card or Rebecca Blank or Steve Levitt). I am not aware of any top flight academic economists in this area who have blogs or who have time/interest to participate in them. Or in sociology, do people like Sandy Jencks or Susan Mayer have blogs? In economics Brad delong is really a rarety, but he is a macroeconomist/economic historian.

Perhaps longer term, there is hope but right now its tough to expect to have people with expertise get involved.

Posted by: lerxst | Jul 1, 2004 12:21:16 AM

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