If white liberals are truly concerned with racial violence, they should direct their outrage at their own cities. In these havens of liberal multiculturalism, where Democrats dominate politics at the local level, brutal repression and forced displacement of poor people of color abound beneath the thin veneer of tolerance. For too many, violence is a daily part of urban life.
Our crisis-driven media has unsurprisingly latched onto the recent events in Charlottesville, VA. No doubt, explicit white supremacist violence like this should be strongly condemned and resisted. And it’s important to understand how the Trump regime directly endangers the most marginalized people across the country and world.
But the unexamined irony of liberal virtue-signaling when it comes to racial violence is maddening. Their binary treatment of racism — the unabashed white supremacists are racist, and we are not at all — is deeply flawed, and covers up structural processes, directly engineered by these same liberals, that make life hell for huge numbers of poor people of color. In liberal discourse, love trumps hate. In the material reality of the gentrifying city, white liberal comfort and property values trump the rights to shelter and dignity of poor Black and brown residents.
As Arundhati Roy has written, “for most people in the world, peace is war — daily battle against hunger, thirst, and the violation of their dignity.” This is certainly true for plenty of African Americans and Latinos in large U.S. cities. In New York City, for example, amidst the rising rents and evictions that accompany a white-hot real estate market, soon 1 in 7 elementary school students will be homeless. In Los Angeles, 650,000 children are “food insecure.” This misery is of course disproportionately borne by people of color.
It is an absolute outrage for this to take place in some of the richest cities in the history of civilization, not to mention self-appointed leaders of the resistance. But the liberal conscience is wiped clean upon witnessing events like that of Charlottesville, or simply looking at our President’s Twitter page.
My use of “liberal” here refers to a very particular class — yes, class — that I am extremely familiar with. They are the white, highly educated, affluent, professional city-dwellers that dominate left-of-center politics in this country. My purpose here is not to catalogue the ins and outs of liberalism in 2017, which has been ably fulfilled by Thomas Frank, among others.
I simply want to get the point across that white liberals have a huge blind spot when it comes to their role in perpetuating racial violence in this country. And it’s not that they simply participate in racist institutions, as we all do. Rather, their consumption and residential patterns, combined with their wielding of political power at the local level, directly result in violence and misery for vast numbers of poor people of color.
Engaging with the past and present of my hometown of Los Angeles should clarify how exactly this works. White liberal wealth, comfort, and power have been amassed, and are still maintained, through a combination of state and market violence against poor POC, and racist politicking among whites. Contemporary gentrification must be seen as a continuation of this history, dispossessing and displacing Blacks and Latinos as white yuppies recolonize the areas they once shunned.
Beginning in the 1950s in Los Angeles, large-scale downtown property owners employed public funds via the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to reconstruct the centrally located neighborhood of Bunker Hill to their liking. Pursuing rising property values, longstanding plans for the construction of public housing were scrapped in favor of commercial- and retail-oriented land use, along with a smaller number of luxury apartments. Don Parson, in his book on this history, calls this vision of downtown “corporate modernism.” The area’s 11,000 low-income residents were forced to leave, and the entire neighborhood was razed starting in 1964. Today, Bunker Hill exists to serve the wealthy patrons of its ritzy hotels, fine restaurants, and luxury apartments. It additionally boasts hot spots like The Broad, MOCA, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Los Angeles culture industry rose from the ashes of forced displacement carried out by the state, serving its propertied masters pulling the strings.
A strikingly similar history applies to Dodger Stadium and the former residents of Chavez Ravine, recounted here by UCLA history professor John Laslett. Plans for public housing were drawn up in the 1940s and then abandoned during the Red Scare of the 1950s. The almost exclusively low-income Chicano inhabitants were either deceived into selling their property at low rates to the City, or forcibly evicted by the Sheriff’s Department. The publicly owned land was then sold in a sweetheart deal to the Dodgers, and construction of the stadium began in 1959. The Dodgers franchise, now worth over $2 billion, is owned by these grinning white men (and Magic Johnson).
Meanwhile, lily-white Westside neighborhoods like the one I grew up in were dutifully protected by groups such as the Culver City for Caucasians Committee, preventing the siting of public housing nearby, and tenaciously enforcing racially restrictive covenants. An entire generation of white Angeleno families was able to ride its rising home values to prosperity thanks to racist organizing and a City Council unwilling to challenge the dominant white power structures. Non-anglos were almost completely shut out from this massive wealth creation, only eligible to purchase 3.3% of new housing built during the 1950s boom.
Since the 1973 election of Mayor Tom Bradley, Los Angeles has been thoroughly dominated by liberal Democrats. But this pattern of subjugating Black and brown populations for the benefit of white property owners and developers has proceeded unabated.
The redevelopment of downtown continued to prioritize the interests of large landholders and owners of capital looking to invest in the built environment, while ideas for people-oriented development of poor communities of color fell by the wayside. Vast sums of public funds were used to provide for-profit developers tax breaks and land to construct billion-dollar commercial mega-structures in the burgeoning financial district. Simultaneously, poor African-American and Latino workers bore the brunt of deindustrialization, watching the flight of 75,000 blue-collar jobs from the region in 1978–1982 alone. Employment in local jails and the booming private security industry made up some of the difference, financially tying members of the working class to the ongoing criminalization of poverty and Blackness.
Post-Civil Rights Movement, middle- and upper-class whites continued to segregate their communities by race and class, cynically using zoning laws to mandate minimum lot sizes and prevent multi-unit residential developments (read: homes for poor people). Westside liberals even appropriated the environmentalism of the times to keep their communities white and rich. In the 1970s the “limousine conservationists” of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Homeowners successfully prevented the construction of 450,000 residential units in the Santa Monica Mountains. Similar efforts by white communities on the outskirts of the city added insult to injury via their incorporation into separate municipalities, significantly eroding the tax base of Los Angeles.
The economic polarization of this “post-Keynesian” Los Angeles continues to this day. As the interests of yuppies seeking to live closer to downtown dovetail with those of the real estate industry, the losers are the urban poor. Evictions have skyrocketed as low-income housing units are converted into luxury condos. Since 2000 in LA County, rents have gone up 32% while median real income has dropped 3%. Capitalist market forces now take care of the dirty work that has previously been the realm of the state — displacing poor people of color so rich white folk can live where they please.
Wanton homelessness is the inevitable result of a system that treats shelter as a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder. Homelessness in LA County jumped 23% over the last year alone, to 58,000 individuals. African Americans make up 39% of the homeless, but just 8% of the overall population. The unhoused are then contained in Skid Row, or coerced into moving away from the wealthy white people via hostile architecture that makes public space unlivable, or police sweeps of encampments that violently kick the most vulnerable while they’re already down. Friedrich Engels long ago predicted how the bourgeoisie would deal with those left out of the for-profit housing system: “they are merely shifted elsewhere.”
And the robust police state continues to play its crucial role. City and County law enforcement carry on harassing and brutalizing the surplus population of color, these days with an assist from ICE and the deportation machine. Policing is especially repressive where poor African-American neighborhoods encroach on the domain of the wealthy, white Westside. Since LAPD’s first gang injunction was used in 1987 to violently maintain the color-line between white Beverlywood and Black Cadillac-Corning, Los Angeles has been a national leader in funneling Black youth into the criminal justice system in order to protect white property values and wealth. As of 2016 the City of Los Angeles still maintained 46 gang injunctions covering 75 square miles, provoking a lawsuit from the ACLU, who claim the tools “violate any notion of due process.”
Racial violence borne of economic polarization is only going to worsen as Los Angeles cements its status as a “Third World” City. While more and more families are forced to navigate deep poverty, homelessness, and a police state that views them merely as threats to white yuppies and property values, Los Angeles was recently determined to be the number one spot to buy property in North America, based on a survey of global real estate investors. In the liberal city, buttressed by the historical legacy of premeditated white supremacy, market forces wage racial class war on a daily basis.
I do not mean to totally excuse the socialist left. And I suppose this essay can be interpreted as my own form of virtue-signaling. But I do believe that the left has a more comprehensive understanding of racial violence, and many socialists I know are actively involved in organizing to make Los Angeles a more humane place. More importantly, the socialist left has not held power for 40-plus years in cities across the country. Liberals have.
Earlier this month, I attended an anti-white supremacy rally in Venice Beach, a global leader in the twin processes of gentrification and abuse of homeless residents. The irony was lost on most.