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American Babylon: Black Panthers and Proposition 13

In 1969, the Black Panther Party warned that fundamental change must come to the United States, lest it “perish like Babylon,” the biblical city that fell under the weight of its own corruption and imperial ambitions. “Babylon” as place and concept passed into the lexicon of radical black politics, borrowed from African American religious tradition, as well as from the Jamaican Rastafarians for whom Babylon denoted Western capitalism and imperialism. In the hands of the Panthers, Babylon acquired a new rhetorical provocativeness: “in the concrete inner city jungles of Babylon” men and women would join together “to cast aside their personal goals and aspirations, and begin to work unselfishly together.” So, Babylon stood for both, the inevitability of imperialism’s demise and for the possibility that something better might be erected in its place, something more democratic. “The people of Babylon” could, through struggle, throw off oppression and create a new day.

Babylon provides a powerful metaphor through which to think about a particular moment in postwar American urban history. Indeed, it reminds us that black power, and contests over its meaning and implications, are a fundamental part of the political history of urban America. Facing a national crisis of unprecedented dimensions—following decades of segregation and industrial restructuring—African American radicals and liberals alike responded politically. Black communities were not solely victims of an “urban crisis”; they were burdened with, and engaged in, conceiving remedies. In Babylon, black power advocates found an urban referent through which to conceive the plight of the black nation and evoke the essential realities of the postwar American city: poverty amidst wealth, national economic growth with urban decline, and the hardening of apartheid within the liberal state. The journey through those seeming paradoxes inevitably takes us to the connections between the city and political power and to three decades of intense contest over the uses, value, and nature of urban space.

The Twin Ideologies of Space

The most significant political, economic, and spatial transformation in the postwar United States was the overdevelopment of suburbs and the underdevelopment of cities. As ostensible signifiers of this transformation, “white ?ight” and “urban decline” mask volatile and protracted social and political struggles over land, taxes, jobs, and public policy in the 30 years between 1945 and the late 1970s. Such struggles dominated postwar Oakland, California, and its nearby suburbs, ultimately giving rise to two of the nation’s most controversial political ideologies: a politics of community defense and empowerment among blacks, and a neopopulist conservative homeowner politics among whites. As the home of both, the Black Panther Party and the tax revolt, California’s story is postwar America’s story—black and white, urban and suburban, rebellion and backlash— narratives that are inextricably linked and demand to be told as one.

In Oakland and the East Bay, as the tax revolt and black power evolved together, in tension, they faced off over how the region’s assets and prosperity would be distributed. Suburban city building drew homeowners, almost exclusively white and Anglo, into political battles to shape their new communities. In con?icts over land, taxes, and housing, a combination of federal policy, homeowner self-interest, and the real estate industry’s profit-driven embrace of racial exclusivity encouraged suburban residents to take narrow views of their social responsibility. When black Oaklanders undertook the postwar struggle for racial equality, they challenged the inequities of this suburban city building and accompanying signs of urban underdevelopment: residential segregation, job discrimination, urban renewal, and deindustrialization. Over time, those challenges grew increasingly urgent and militant, precipitating among many East Bay African Americans a break with liberal assumptions and strategies in favor of community empowerment. African American–led political movements thus interpenetrated with a suburban politics focused on homeownership, taxes, and a retreat from connections to a larger social collective.

In the workplaces and communities of midcentury West Oakland, African American residents forged a distinct laborite culture that blended class politics with civil rights. Based in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and other black railroad unions, as well as the left wing of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) on the docks and the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCSU) on the ships, this culture extended its in?uence through the East Bay. It was by no means universal and never enjoyed the endorsement of the majority of whites. But it nonetheless ?owered in the working-class districts of the Oakland ?atlands—and north into Berkeley—nurturing through the dark days of Cold War anticommunism a social and political milieu in which antiracism and progressive ideas, debate and struggle, were the order of the day.

Within this milieu, Pullman porters joined with University of California law graduates in Democratic political clubs. African American women, many of them daughters of southern Jim Crow, engaged in an activist homeowner politics that subverted the prescriptions of postwar white domestic femininity. And calls for black economic rights and a broader welfare state for all California workers defined the political agenda. This culture extended its reach across time. Black longshoremen, veterans of the brutal class wars on the docks in the 1930s, articulated an internationalism that would, in the 1960s, in?uence Oaklanders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as they founded the Black Panther Party. Black leaders from the railroad unions established political strategies in the 1940s that would guide a generation of activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. From one decade to the next across the second half of the century, these neighborhoods were home to a rich range of laborite, community, civil rights, and eventually, black liberation politics.

A Politics of Welfare by Exclusion

In East Oakland, and other similar neighborhoods, another political tradition developed in the postwar years. Skilled workers joined with merchants and other small business interests, all largely white, in a diffuse populism that counterposed “the public” against big business and downtown property owners. Adherents of this midcentury populism were vehemently pro-union, resistant to high taxes, and wedded to the ambition of suburban homeownership that the “amazing New West” promised. In the 1940s, these politics embraced a commonsense notion of what constituted a “fair share” for “working people” on a range of economic matters, from wages to taxes and leisure.

These politics, which emerged at the same time in nearby suburban cities like San Leandro and Milpitas, led in multiple directions. In one of those directions lay an individualist conception of property rights that buttressed calls for low taxes throughout the postwar period and provided the ideological grounding for the emergence of the so-called tax revolt of the late 1970s. Oakland and the East Bay thus incubated two of California’s most important postwar political traditions: a broad liberal one that sought expansions of the social wage and racial equality; and an equally broad populist-conservative one that celebrated private rights and understood liberalism’s limits through property and homeownership.

In the 1950s and 1960s Oakland planners, developers, and capitalists turned to the instruments and technologies of postwar urban design to remake their city. They hoped to restore property values by redeveloping land, clearing slums, constructing highways and rapid transit, and mechanizing the port—a broad engineering of new urban forms. They sought to revive the city, and downtown in particular, as a site of capital accumulation. At the same time, African Americans sought a different sort of urban renaissance, one shaped by the goals of economic opportunity for the growing black community: jobs, development, and neighborhood investment. The two visions clashed, as the reengineering of Oakland, coupled with structural economic changes, further disadvantaged the city’s black working class. To resolve the tension between divergent views of the city, liberal reformers focused on remaking citizens, reconstructing people themselves through a variety of measures, from juvenile delinquency programs to the War on Poverty. Instead of a resolution, a new politics was born—a struggle over control of urban resources in the late 1950s and 1960s that dominated and convulsed the city like nothing since the organized labor campaigns of the 1930s.

Much of the modern civil rights movement, and its emphasis on economic rights, was dedicated to a critique of and confrontation with the two-tired welfare state instantiated in the New Deal—especially its segregationist housing policies, its lack of fair employment and full employment provisions, its exclusion of hundreds of thousands of black workers from the protections of labor laws, and its deeply biased forms of social insurance, including what is now called “welfare.” This required a massive engagement with the major institutions of the nation—especially the state, finance and real estate capital, and industrial employers of all sizes—that coincided with and was propelled by the largest internal black migration in American history: the movement of four million African Americans from South to North and West. Moreover, the New Deal state’s intimate involvement in urban policy meant that the federal government, municipal politics, and metropolitan development converged during these decades to a degree unprecedented in the nation’s history. This made the federal government an adversary as often as an ally. In this sense, the postwar black struggle in America represented one of the world’s most sustained and militant engagements with the modern state apparatus.

The Birth of Strategic Opportunism 

African American activists in Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles fought to secure a place for black communities within the shifting patterns of metropolitan geography and economy that accompanied the vast spatial transformation of midcentury urban America. They engaged the processes and institutions responsible for the second ghetto and the urban crisis as no other group in California. Industrial restructuring, redevelopment and urban renewal, highway and rapid transit construction, and suburban city building became the pivots around which black politics turned. These issues were not merely the backdrop to the black liberation struggle. Through them, the movement itself was constituted.

In Oakland in particular, the political discourse and strategies of the long postwar African American rights movement stressed the failure of urban and metropolitan political economy to secure the promise of democracy and opportunity. In this sense, the movement, including liberal, radical, and nationalist variants, was not primarily a response to southern mobilization, but a parallel development that sought to redistribute economic and political power within the increasingly divided metropolis. When local, state, and federal political efforts had failed to do this, when liberalism came up wanting, many African Americans turned to black power and radical liberation politics.

White suburbanites did not “?ee” Oakland. They were drawn to suburban communities by the powerful economic and cultural incentives behind city building: new housing markets subsidized by the federal government; low taxes underwritten by relocating industry; and the assurance that a new home, spacious yard, and garage signaled their full assimilation into American life and its celebration of modernity and consumption. That process generated expectations: homeowners came to expect, and later demand, low property taxes; they came to expect and rationalize racial segregation; and they came to accept as natural the con?ation of whiteness and property ownership with upward social mobility. To secure those expectations, suburban homeowners were not shy about entering electoral politics over the course of the postwar decades to assert their property “rights” and to contain the benefits of suburbanization. Lifted into the middle class by the federal welfare state, white residents of southern Alameda County fought the extension of those same benefits to African Americans.

Urban Space as Metaphor

One of the most powerful political movements of the second half of the twentieth century in California—and ultimately the nation—came about through a synthesis of two venerable traditions within American political culture: low-tax fiscal conservatism and booster promotion. Its adherents, legion by the 1960s, came from virtually every economic station, united by their status and interests as homeowners. Indeed, postwar suburbanization had the effect of creating a proto-class, the members of which might have had dissimilar political loyalties (as well as different incomes, jobs, etc.) but could be united on the single issue of property taxation. Postwar suburbanization helped to instantiate, in place, a tax-conscious voting bloc. That bloc competed with advocates of liberalism and radicalism to define the direction of the state in the postwar decades.

The new postwar metropolis in California and its political economy undergirded by segregation failed to deliver upward mobility to the majority of black workers. This realization spawned revolts in Oakland, led by African American community activists and the Black Panther Party. Together, they articulated a radical critique of the whole of metropolitan development since World War II and implicated liberalism in continued black poverty. In contrast, in nearby suburbs, they reacted to the mounting costs of California’s rapid postwar development by attacking and limiting the liberal state. Homeowners embraced tax reform for an enormous variety of reasons, but they nonetheless produced a dramatic convergence of political ideology around an antistatist, property-owning individualism that would have enormous consequences for California and the nation.

By 1978, Oakland civic authority had passed into the hands of the black bourgeoisie, and Proposition 13 had signaled the emergence of a new suburban order.

Space is not the whole story, but it would be a strange and incoherent one without it. Class and race are lived through the fabric of urban life and space. Civil rights, black power, and tax reform movements did not call for rights in abstract terms. They called for very specific things in relation to very specific places. We cannot separate historical actors and events from their spatial contexts.

Robert Self is an associate progessor of history at Brown University. This article is based on an excerpt from his book American Babylon: Race and Struggle for Postwar Oakland 2003 Princeton University Press, all rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Princeton University Press. 

Race and Regionalsm | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Fall 2008 | Credits

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