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FW: Dupont on Wilson, _Race and Place in Birmingham_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...have a great weekend, everyone! --aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-Net Reviews [mailto:books@H-NET.MSU.EDU] Sent: Friday, January 19, 2001 2:49
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 19, 2001
      fyi...have a great weekend, everyone! --aj wright // ajwright@...

      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-Net Reviews [mailto:books@...]
      Sent: Friday, January 19, 2001 2:49 PM
      To: H-REVIEW@...
      Subject: Dupont on Wilson, _Race and Place in Birmingham_

      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

      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

      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 system.

      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

      _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 view.

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