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FW: H-South Review: Dupont on Wilson, _Race and Place in Birming ham_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington [mailto:binningt@uiuc.edu] Sent: Thursday, December 14, 2000 1:16 PM To:
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington [mailto:binningt@...]
      Sent: Thursday, December 14, 2000 1:16 PM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Dupont on Wilson, _Race and Place in

      Published by H-South@... (December, 2000)

      Bobby M. Wilson. _Race and Place in Birmingham: The Civil Rights and
      Neighborhood Movements_. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. x
      + 275 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $69.00 (cloth), ISBN
      0-8476-9482-8; $25.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8476-9483-6.

      Reviewed for H-South by Robert Dupont, rldupont@..., Metropolitan
      College, University of New Orleans.

      Local History and Global Analysis

      The publishers of _Race and Place in Birmingham_ classify the work within
      the fields of Geography and Race Studies. It might also be included within
      Political Science, Social Science and History. H-South regulars expecting
      a traditional history monograph should be warned. _Race and Place in
      Birmingham_ demands a considerable effort of its readers, but those equal
      to the challenge will enjoy a fresh interpretation of the civil rights and
      neighborhood movements in Birmingham. At the same time, most readers will
      experience a more difficult but impressive analysis of modern capitalism
      and its effects upon social movements, as well as the author's
      prescriptions for societal change.

      Wilson seeks to explain the dynamics of the two social movements in
      Birmingham not only as local phenomena, but also as the result of "larger
      structural and institutional forces" (p. 2). He begins with an analysis of
      postmodern politics as the replacement for interest group politics and
      pluralist theory. Whereas pluralist politics separated politics from
      private life, Wilson argues, postmodern politics provides the occasion for
      emancipation and development of different identities. Though class figures
      heavily in Wilson's analysis (and even more heavily in his prescriptions),
      class is only one aspect of a individual's identity. The postmodern world
      enables new identifies (individual and social) to emerge. Birmingham
      serves as the case study to illustrate the larger dynamics of national and
      international capitalism as well as local social movements.

      Wilson's description of modernity indicts the tendencies of the nation
      state toward homogeneity, uniformity and standardization. These
      characteristics conform too closely, he argues, to the dominant features of
      capitalism, thus putting the power of the state in the service of the
      ideological/economic system. Wilson briefly recapitulates the history of
      Birmingham to establish that city's post-Civil War experience as an example
      of modernization. From pre-modern slavery to the Prussian route,
      Birmingham becomes industrialized and adopts twentieth-century capitalism
      without disturbing its race practices. In fact, the conditions of racism
      promoted segmentation of labor and helped to conceal economic inequality.

      The Great Depression and the policies of the New Deal restructured the
      black community and created conditions favorable to the civil rights
      movement. The decline of tenant farming and the concentration of black
      population in urban areas--along with the rise in black churches, colleges
      and businesses--provided the context for social and political change. In
      other parts of the United States, pluralist politics in urban areas
      absorbed black voters without giving up real power. But the race policies
      of Birmingham allow no such accommodation. Furthermore, Wilson argues, the
      post-depression political economy emphasized stability and increased
      consumption--factors that further suppressed class differences. In
      Birmingham, an emerging black middle class favored peaceful change and
      negotiation instead of direct confrontation.

      Black identity begins to mature in the South after World War II. The
      worldwide anti-colonial movement combined with domestic changes and the
      writings of black intellectuals to nurture resistance based on racial
      identify, not class. In Birmingham, the white response to even tentative
      black requests for change was widespread, including local action, appeals
      to the state legislature, the organization of Citizens Councils and
      resistance by white unions. For a time, neither the political nor economic
      institutions of the city would alter the status quo. Change came to
      Birmingham only when that economic and political consensus broke down.

      Wilson tells the story of the "Battle for Birmingham" (Chapter 8)
      succinctly. This is not a comprehensive history of local civil rights, but
      rather an example of his larger thesis. Under pressure from local blacks,
      the national government and, most important, the national and international
      press, the power elite of the city split. Although the political
      leadership remained adamant, the economic leadership began to weight the
      damage being done to the city's image and interests. The city adopted a
      new form of government, accepted biracial negotiating committees and
      eventually repealed segregation ordinances. These events, according to
      Wilson, were the result of post-World War II economic changes that--by the
      1960s--tipped the political balance in favor of modest political
      reform. In the Fordist economy that came to the South, the appearance of
      efficiency and the ability of communities to attract capital investment was
      crucial. Racial turmoil became incompatible with economic
      development. "This moment was one of the few in U.S. history where blacks
      benefited from market forces in their struggle for racial
      equality. Capitalists attempted to avoid places with stigmas of racism"
      (p. 107).

      The years after Birmingham's most difficult troubles saw an increase in the
      national welfare state and the development of specific, national urban
      programs such as the Community Action Program (CAP) and Model
      Cities. Wilson admires the grass roots process inherent in CAP, but
      views Model Cities as an attempt of municipal leaders to recapture control
      of anti-poverty efforts. Furthermore, national welfare policies tended to
      reinforce the assumption of those opposed to anti-poverty programs that
      blacks benefited disproportionately. Income distribution improved under
      such programs, but Wilson regrets that anti-poverty efforts weakened class
      identity and made no lasting changes in the structure of the capitalist

      The capitalist system itself evolved toward the end of the twentieth
      century. The post-Fordist economy, according to Wilson, is international
      and highly competitive; investment capital is both flexible and
      mobile. Within metropolitan areas such as Birmingham, white flight and
      capital flight occur together, leaving greater concentrations of blacks in
      the central city. In the international arena, corporations move plants,
      investments and job opportunities with ease. The resulting dislocations in
      the labor market have weakened unions and cowed local officials into
      offering larger and larger inducements to maintain and attract both capital
      and the jobs that accompany the investments. National politics is driven
      to the right and emphasizes market values to the detriment of
      distributional policies and equity concerns. City planning follows the
      general trend by adopting standards that are ostensibly objective, but in
      fact serve corporate and elite needs.

      Wilson illustrates one possible response to this bleak landscape by
      describing the rise of the neighborhood movement in Birmingham. From 1945
      to 1975 thirty black-led civil leagues emerged to affect policy. By the
      1990s, the neighborhood associations numbered over one hundred. These
      associations provide a channel for local concerns and serve as training
      grounds for political leadership. Wilson hopes that their presence will
      offset the modernist view of planning as normative and uniform in favor of
      a process that promotes diversity.

      The concluding chapter of _Race and Place in Birmingham_ identifies a
      dilemma at the core of the book: the postmodern politics of race identity
      and neighborhood encourage atomization and consequent harm to collective
      action. The exclusiveness associated with black identity, for example, may
      have served the cause of civil rights, but is inadequate to face down
      global corporate power. Wilson identifies a need for organizing principle
      that transcends the constraints of race and place (and ethnicity and
      gender). For Wilson, a renewed awareness of class provides the opportunity
      for an organizing theory. "The politics of the 1960s were not diversionary
      or reactionary, but they did contribute to a politics of desire, which is a
      critical precondition of achieving a real class struggle." In this view,
      postmodern politics provides a transition toward the reorganization of
      politics on a "global scale" (p. 212). Wilson suggests that such politics
      might organize around such issues as environmental justice and the
      promotion of an eco-friendly capitalism.

      _Race and Place in Birmingham_ suffers from several examples of careless
      editing. Some points are made repetitively, and arguments from one chapter
      are apt to show up again in another. The vocabulary of Marxian analysis
      can be cloying, and the reader searching for the noble story of civil
      rights in Birmingham may give up before encountering the historical
      facts. This is not a book that would be automatically useful in a seminar
      on civil rights history, for example. But Wilson's view of class and
      postmodern politics is argued effectively, and the history of Birmingham
      provides a dramatic backdrop to the larger argument. Readers are advised
      to persist through the occasional weaknesses, to appreciate the research,
      to admire the depth of the analysis, and to consider seriously the point of

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