Abolition Unfinished

…the demands of abolition exceed a simple respite from antiblack racism. Abolition is the unreasonable, irreverent wilderness that exceeds and undermines any infrastructural attempt to “develop” its lands, even in the service of revolution. Abolition is not a pathway—it is the end of paths and the end of worlds, a roadblock barring passage to the destination-cum-mirage of late liberal democracy.

—Savannah Shange, Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco

Dependence on cotton stretched far beyond North American shores. A world greedy for a slice of the whipping-machine’s super-profits had financed the occupation of the continent, and the forced migration of enslaved African Americans to the southwestern cotton fields helped to make the modern world economy possible. The steadily increasing productivity of hands on the cotton frontier kept cheap raw materials flowing to the world’s newest and most important industry, the cotton textile factories of Britain, Western Europe, and the North… Slavery’s expansion was the driving force in US history between the framing of the Constitution and the beginning of the Civil War.

—Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

As W.E.B. Dubois first argued in 1935, and white historians have finally fully conceded, by deserting their enslavers by the hundreds of thousands, by slowing and stopping work by the millions, and by joining Union forces to directly fight against Confederate armies, enslaved men and women forced the upcountry southern whites and the Union armies fighting to defeat the Confederacy militarily into helping them wage a war to destroy slavery. And in their world-historical success, they nipped an emerging slave-powered white-supremacist industrial war machine in the bud.

—Jeremy Zallen, American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light 1750-1865

These patterns of economic exploitation were evidence that it was not just racial hatred that maintained the segregation of African Americans in their urban enclaves. A political economy had emerged and was structured around the captive African American market…. [described by social theorist Noliwe Rooks as “segrenomics”]…

—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership

These days, I’m an old white guy, nearing 63 years old. But outward appearances, not surprisingly, don’t tell the whole story. As a child I grew up in or adjacent to Black Urban America. Born in Brooklyn, I grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park from age 2-10, and then North Oakland from 1967-74, during the peak of the Black Panthers whose headquarters was less than a mile from my home. When I arrived in San Francisco at the beginning of 1978 I found a place on Cole just off Haight Street (Haight Street was at the time about 50% boarded up and abandoned). Page Street, a half block away, was nearly 100% African American from Golden Gate Park all the way to Market Street. The “lower Haight” was still the Fillmore, and was overwhelmingly a black neighborhood. But in a few short years, the black population was disappearing around me, and by the time I left the Haight for the Mission in 1987, gentrification had fully transformed the upper Haight, and was well on the way to transforming the southern Fillmore into the “lower Haight” and later “NOPA” and other real estate tags.

Seeing the recent film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” was incredibly moving. It’s a gorgeously filmed movie full of exquisite shots, and right from the start you realize that the filmmakers are fully engaged in the moment. A soapbox “preacher” is standing at a chain link fence in swirling smoke denouncing the toxic waste buried in the Hunters Point shipyard properties slated for development (and already wreaking havoc with the health of the remaining black population of the area). As the story unfolds, a distinctly black San Francisco sensibility quickly emerges, playfully bouncing between a greek chorus of rappers and the more artsy intellectualism of the main characters. I sighed repeatedly, feeling the aching absence of these lovely people in my everyday life. How can it be that Black San Francisco, once nearly 100,000 people, has shrunk so far that a film like this could be made and the title’s irony is overwhelmed by the reality it describes? A grassroots group in Bayview briefly appeared a couple of years ago under the moniker of the “Last 3%,” though it didn’t survive long. The upcoming census will tell the obvious tale of ethnic cleansing that has disproportionately evicted black and brown San Franciscans over the past two generations.

Black Panthers and supporters across from San Francisco’s City Hall, c. 1968.

None of this can be a surprise. The deep structural racism of U.S. society, while briefly obscured by Obama’s election, has resurfaced as Trumpism, and it looks like it’ll take a violent struggle to finally rid ourselves of it. Abolition began with the mass general strike of enslaved people during the Civil War, made some important legal gains in the constitutional amendments (13, 14, and 15) that passed during Reconstruction, but suffered decades of regression and defeat between the 1870s and the 1950s. The Jim Crow era, the full implantation of white supremacy not just in the South but throughout the U.S., even in San Francisco, kept African Americans in economic and social bondage enforced by police and vagrancy laws, debt and finance, and disenfranchisement. When the Civil Rights movement erupted and the legal apparatus of official discrimination began to crumble, other means were used to maintain the historic inequalities that are one of the bedrocks of the American way of life (these barbaric inequalities themselves are built on the genocide and mass theft of lands from indigenous peoples that comprise the other indispensable foundation of the United States).

Black folks in San Francisco began to coalesce around the language of “Frisco natives” and “Gentrification is Colonization” as displacement tightened its grip around The City. Of course, Frisco indigeneity is palimpsestic, only legible when hastily scribbled over three centuries of Muwekma Ohlone genocide… just because Black indigeneity flummoxes what we know about Indianness and blackness, it does not collapse the distinction between them. The politics of belonging in The City are a set of volleys between and across the inherited categories of settler, savage, and slave, Frisco native and out-of-towner, here and there, then and now. (p. 112) … I write in collusion with [my student] Tarika’s ethnographic refusal [to participate in my interviews]—following her no without trying to transform it into a yes. Her manifestation as a Black Matrix straight outta Sunnydale brings us back to the utility of indigenous political theory in The City, where Frisca indigeneity is a new foil for the old dispossessed twins, the Ohlone and the Negro. (p. 120) (Shange, Progressive Dystopia)

Some recent fiction got me started on a new jag of study. The novel American War by Omar El Akkad is a brilliant speculative work about the Second American Civil War breaking out in 2074. The story mostly takes place in the long years after the war has stalemated, and the characters live in refugee camps along the front lines at the northern border of the “Free Southern States” of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia (Florida is by 2075 entirely under water except for a few islands; South Carolina is entirely quarantined and off limits due to the detonation of a deadly biological weapon during the war). The United States has shrunk, literally due to massive sea level rise, and politically due to the establishment of a “Mexican Protectorate” covering most of the original territory of Mexico seized during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Eastern Texas is one of the hottest battle zones of the grinding, ongoing war. This novel has an incredible plot line and I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say that it is well worth a read. Friends who I have recommended this to have told me they find it too depressing or slow in the early part and I concede that it will take an effort to get fully into it… but you won’t regret it! Our current polarization and neo-tribal divide, themselves reminiscent of the Civil War period, are revealed in their full misery 50 years hence.

Another novel I just finished is An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon. This novel takes place on the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized like the antebellum South and captained by a sadistic Christian fundamentalist. The ship’s decks are dedicated to entirely different kinds of living, from the luxurious water-rich comfort of the upper classes, to the freezing misery of constant work enforced by a hybrid combination of militarized overseers and technological surveillance on the lower agricultural and manufacturing decks. The main character is an autodidactic black woman who gains mobility and access thanks to the sponsorship of the ship’s main medical doctor, himself a queer bastard offspring of an earlier captain. Layer upon layer of racial and class politics animate this remarkable novel, which relentlessly carries along its story to the climax.

Yet another recent novel didn’t rock my boat as strongly, but its sly portrayal of a disaffected black Los Angeleno who decides to embrace a reintroduction of slavery and segregation as a reasonable response to the lack of progress on racial oppression, is literally black humor at its best. The Sellout by Paul Beatty has a sense of history too: “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

And what has stayed with us as profoundly as racism?

Science fiction, while brilliantly illuminating the world we’re in, doesn’t fill in the blanks that really make sense of the deep structural dynamics undergirding our racist culture. Of course there are literally hundreds of books on slavery and racism, but I want to highlight three that I recently read that taken together, do an amazing job of connecting our world to the barbarism that was essential to its creation, and some of the false reforms that promised to address this inequity. The three books are

• Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

• Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership

• Savannah Shange, Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco

Baptist’s book is an incredible work. His bibliography and notes are incomparable, and his decade-long research shows on every page. He uses the narratives of formerly enslaved people as a recurrent source to help us remember how real human beings were repeatedly destroyed, families torn apart, children and babies torn from their mothers, etc. The title of his book is taken from a Depression-era interview with a formerly enslaved, elderly man who in response to a dry WPA questionnaire tells his interlocutor “the half has never been told…”

The book argues that we have to flip our received understanding of slavery—it was NOT a backwards inefficient part of the capitalist economy that was doomed to fail, as post-Civil War historians and economists have nearly all argued. It was a brutally efficient system that produced the profits that helped create modern capitalism, not just in the U.S. but in Europe as well. Markets in human beings became more efficient during the first half of the 1800s, while expanding enormously into the dispossessed lands of the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and other tribes of the south and southwest (east of the Mississippi River). Part of what made them more efficient was the use of speculative financial instruments invented at the time, based on the collateral value of the human beings claimed as private property.

There was much more cotton in 1836 than there had been in 1828. Over eight years of seedtime, the US government, the states, banks, private citizens, and foreign entities had collectively invested about $400 million, or one-third of the value of all US economic activity in 1830, into expanding production on slavery’s frontier. This includes the price of 250,000 slaves moved, 48 million new acres of public land sold, the costs of Indian removals and wars, and the massive expansion of the southwestern financial infrastructure. (p. 271)

Worse still, the techniques of coercing ever more labor out of the bodies of enslaved people are the actual point of origin for the Taylorized time-and-motion managerial systems that are usually attributed to the rise of the factory.

Using torture, slavery’s entrepreneurs extracted an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills in the Western world. (p. 140) … Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutiliation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in “stress positions,” burning, even waterboarding. And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds. (p. 141) … Slavery’s productivity was higher than ever [in 1860]—some 700 pounds per enslaved man, woman, and child in the cotton country, twenty-two times the rate in 1790. (p. 386-387)

The paltry history education available to most Americans leads to a terribly amnesiac society. My readings into 19th century history, which started about seven years ago when the SF Art Institute hired me to teach a class on 19th century San Francisco, have been revelatory. Attitudes and political ideas about individualism, the state, and of course Others, all have deep roots in the earliest decades of American expansionism. Our self-congratulatory version of American history wherein “we” abolished slavery in 1863, and have been on an arc bending toward justice ever since, is rather hard to stomach when you go beyond surface appearances. Granted, people love to hear self-flattering accounts of who they are and the history of their country and their people, but 90% of what passes for American history is blatantly false or falls far short of the real stories.

What we know is that the African American population has never been fully integrated into an equal life in the United States. Following centuries of slavery another 100 years of apartheid-like segregation persisted, blocking black people from being able to live where they wanted to live, to get jobs on an equal footing, or to enjoy the benefits of military service (the GI Bill) in the same way as white veterans did. As Baptist puts it,

Slavery and its expansion had built enduring patterns of poverty and exploitation… [In the early twentieth century] African-American households had virtually no wealth, for instance, while a substantial portion of the wealth held by white households, even after emancipation, could be traced to revenue generated by enslaved labor and financing leveraged out of their bodies before 1861. (p. 411)

A missing piece of this story is what happened when Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs were put in place in the late 1960s, at the height of governmental response to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was one of the agencies established by the sweeping legislation that was meant to conduct a “war on poverty.” We know that going back to the Roosevelt New Deal during the Depression, the Federal Housing Authority had been the lead agency engaged in “redlining,” the process of labeling areas unsuitable for loans due to specific qualities of the housing stock and/or its residents. As it turns out, in city after city, the neighborhoods subjected to redlining were invariably black neighborhoods. Once redlined, homeowners could not get federally supported loans, and the neighborhoods would deteriorate. Moreover, from the early 20th century until the Fair Housing legislation of the 1950s and 1960s, racially restrictive covenants on property deeds allowed owners to refuse to sell to African Americans or other ethnic minorities (or Jews, for that matter). Nearly all the machinations associated with redlining and deed restrictions were attributed to attempts to maintain property values, but of course buried in that anodyne concept are deeply racist assumptions about how value is generated and maintained, what is deemed worthy and unworthy.

When President Johnson’s Federal Housing Authority began removing racist language from its underwriting manuals and orders of operations, but failed “to address its deep commitment to racial segregation [it] was to essentially maintain the architecture of discrimination that continued to grossly limit African American housing options. Just as the federal government was jettisoning “separate but equal” in education, the FHA was proposing to institute the same system, in earnest, for housing.” (Taylor, p. 44)

The racist bureaucracy was only part of the problem. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor brilliantly analyzes, Johnson was already invoking the language of the coming neoliberalism right at the dawn of his initiative to kickstart a housing boom for poor and working-class people:

…in the summer of 1968, this culminate[d] in the passage of the HUD Act, which called upon Congress to approve legislation to build or rehabilitate 26 million units of housing, including 6 million units of low-income housing, all within ten years. It also approved a program to facilitate low-income and poor people in becoming homeowners. To accomplish these historic goals, the legislation called for unprecedented participation among bankers, real estate brokers, and homebuilders in an urgent effort to avert the spiraling urban crisis. Johnson and other Democrats proclaimed that there were limits to what government could accomplish as they summoned what Johnson described as the “genius of private industry” to do what government, thus far, had been unable to achieve. (italics added) (p. 56) … The HUD Act was a watershed event in American housing policy. Johnson described earlier efforts as enlarging “the government’s role to bring decent houses into the reach of families with moderate income.” The HUD Act was going to be different. Instead of continuing to expand “government’s role” in housing low- and moderate-income people, Johnson called for bringing “the talents and energies of private enterprise to the task of housing low-income families through the creation of a federally chartered private, profit-making housing partnership.” (p. 88)

In ways all too similar to today’s ongoing housing catastrophe, the LBJ program dangled the prospect of home ownership in front of poor people as the basic first step towards building wealth and escaping poverty. But the ability to become owners would depend on engaging in the predatory real estate market, with its attendant usurious loans and manipulative agents. While being incorporated into what Taylor aptly calls a system of “predatory inclusion,” black Americans who were flocking to large cities at the tail end of the Great Migration faced a dire shortage of low-cost housing.

During the decade from 1960 to 1970, 2.1 million white Americans fled to the suburbs while 2.6 million African Americans moved into the nation’s cities. Federal policy meanwhile was destroying more housing than it was building. By 1967, over 400,000 units of housing had been destroyed, while another quarter million were slated for repair but were not yet rehabilitated. LBJ’s grand promises relied on the federal government stimulating the private sector into building its promised 26 million units of new low-cost housing. How would that be accomplished?

“Mortgage-backed securities” were introduced in the HUD Act as a way to increase the flow of mortgage credit into the new developing urban housing market. Securitization turned consumer, in this case mortgagor, debt into investor bonds that would then be bought and sold on Wall Street and beyond. Transforming debt into liquid cash ensured the stability of the market from the interests of the builders, brokers, and bankers. (p. 90)

“Mortgage-backed securities” of course are the same mechanism that blew up in 2008 during the worldwide economic meltdown. But their introduction back in the late 1960s to generate participation in the new market of deteriorating urban housing served its purpose at the time. By having the federal government assume the risk and allowing precarious debts to become desirable investment vehicles, real estate speculators flooded into inner city housing markets.

“By 1971 federal subsidy programs were paying the real estate industry $1.4 billion a year and financing one in four new housing units produced… Real estate speculators were making “handsome profits” by flipping houses and using FHA insurance and the favorable terms of its housing programs. The profit as a percentage of investment was a usurious 59 to 69 percent. This was certainly part of the political economy—and calculation—of the program.” (p. 182)

Taylor draws the obvious conclusion from her analysis:

“Lyndon Johnson had promised the “genius of private industry” as the key to unlocking the mystery of perpetual housing crises. But lackadaisical management, erratic regulations, and trenchant racial discrimination combined with the end of redlining and the predacious inclusion of formerly excluded Black urbanites allowed the real estate industry to bleed inner cities dry.” (p. 253)

Savannah Shange brings our story up to the present. She spent some time teaching at Robeson High School in the 21st century and her book Progressive Dystopia is an amazing dive into the intricacies of antiblackness in the one high school in San Francisco that loudly proclaims its commitment to an anti-racist agenda. She recognizes the school’s advantages while refusing to let it off the hook:

…Robeson itself is a glitch—this community-based school, founded by Black, Latinx, and Polynesian parents in partnership with dissident white and Asian American educators, where district-mandated textbooks gather dust in a closet while teachers build their own curricula about US imperialism in the Philippines and mass incarceration. This is not the school reform of Teach for America. (p. 97) … Within San Francisco, those pressures include housing precarity, misogynoir, police terror, street violence, and the grinding disorientation of having-been-a-slave. (p. 99) … it is in this bastion of state-funded progressivism, which is probably the best place to send your kid as a Black parent in San Francisco, that the lash has been most deeply internalized, where pedagogies of respectability are masked behind the language of decolonial liberation. (p. 102)

But going even deeper in her book, which she calls her contribution to “abolitionist anthropology,” she follows Katherine McKittrick’s arguments to open a different perspective on San Francisco neighborhoods as “plantation futures.”

…slavery [is] not an analogy for the present, but [i]s an ongoing structural relation from which we are still seeking relief—it is the territory, not the map… any rhetorical moves that position present carcerality and dispossession as “like slavery” or even as the New Jim Crow inadvertently assert the plantation (as) past, and reinforce the hegemonic narrative of emancipation as a truth rather than a promise. (p. 81)

She explains why studying blackness in San Francisco makes sense, even after so much displacement, really because of it:

…attention to blackness in San Francisco forces us to conceive of power as distinct from density, foiling cynical narratives of abandonment, hemorrhage, exodus, dispersal, and expungement. Yes all that, and still, blackness remains. It is this remainingness, this still-ness, present in the lie of absence, this endurance of blackness, that animate both the school and The City as sites of Black study. (Shange, p. 40)

I loved her poetic ruminations like the previous paragraph. To engage with antiblackness from the vantage point of being a black female educator in the alternative high school most strongly identified as an anti-racist bastion in a city with San Francisco’s self-congratulatory reputation, brings her face to face repeatedly with a house of ideological mirrors. The more she peers into the abyss, the more the images that return are the all-too-familiar ones rooted in the brutal history that enslaved kidnapped Africans and built impossible walls around the existence of Black America ever since.

Her years-long immersive research at Robeson is far from easy or smooth. Many of the students she wants to focus on refuse to participate on her academic terms. “Silence, refusal, absence: the missing Black girls of the humanities archive challenge the dominance of the order of vision in the human sciences, and force us to contend with opacity as a site of knowledge production.” (p. 121) … “…willful defiance is better understood as a mode of Black refusal that rejects the terms of the progressive promise. Willful defiance is fundamentally a critique of civil society, which theorists of antiblackness argue is made whole through the exclusion of blackness from the social body, just as Robeson’s liberated zone is maintained through the explusion of Outsiders.” (p. 140)

I encountered “willful defiance” in my life quite often when I was a child in the Oakland public schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Decades later, as an adjunct at the Art Institute and the University of San Francisco, I puzzled over students who refused to read, and defied all my efforts to engage them with the material. I suppose such refusals could be interpreted in a similar vein, as a deeper critique of a society that won’t ultimately let them in no matter what they do (and even defines its own health in terms of their permanent exclusion). But it’s really complicated too. Is there really an outside? Either for the willfully defiant who refuses to get along with social expectations, or for a society that continually tries to expel the Others, however defined? I don’t think so. Instead we’re left with a weirdly hybridized dysfunctionality—some folks who obstruct and refuse to cooperate and make everything harder for everyone… but also a society that continually throws whole populations into subordinate conditions that guarantees the reproduction of brutality, neglect, discrimination, and denigration.

Perhaps more to the point, the systems in which Black kids are expected to function block their humanity on arrival:

Based on extended fieldwork in Los Angeles public high schools, [Damien Sojoyner] concludes that the “first strike” against Black children does not happen at the moment of arrest, but rather upon enrollment into an educational system designed to depoliticize Black rage and criminalize Black joy. (p. 55)

The last word goes to Paul Beatty in The Sellout, where he gives us this handy system to decipher our level of whiteness!

Regular Whiteness:
Benefit of the Doubt
Higher Life Expectancy
Lower Insurance Premiums

Deluxe Whiteness:
Regular Whiteness Plus
Warnings Instead of Arrests from the Police
Decent Seats at Concerts and Sporting Events
World Revolves Around You and Your Concerns

Super Deluxe Whiteness:
Deluxe Whiteness Plus
Jobs With Annual Bonuses
Military Service Is for Suckers
Legacy Admission to College of Your Choice
Therapists that Listen
Boats That You Never use
All Vices and Bad Habits Referred to as “Phases”
Not Responsible for Scratches, Dents, and Items Left in the Subconscious

1 comment to Abolition Unfinished

  • bruce light

    dear chris / great to have you blogging after quite an absence / love your stuff always interesting and very insightful / I want to go on one of your tours and learn more of the hidden history of sf / keep up the good work / peace / bruster

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>