After spending decades studying the history of social welfare and poverty in American cities, University of Pennsylvania history professor Michael B. Katz has a new book out titled Why Don’t American Cities Burn?
The book, which traces the experience of African-Americans in the American city, begins with a murder and ends with a dilemma.
Herbert Manes’ parents migrated to Philadelphia from South Carolina before World War II. Manes attended Benjamin Franklin High School. He drove a gypsy cab.
Robert Monroe, known as Shorty, was born in Neptune, N.J. It’s unclear how Shorty also wound up in North Philly, eking out a living in the shadow economy of the hood as a street mechanic.
Manes had borrowed $5 from Shorty, and didn’t have it on him when Shorty demanded it back. On Aug. 4, 2005, Manes stabbed Shorty to death on the 1400 block of West Oakland Street.
Katz was juror No. 3 in the murder trial.
The role of a juror is an uncomfortable one for a historian and social scientist. “In my world, where the goal is to comprehend rather than to judge,” wrote Katz, “context matters greatly.”
The jury interpreted Manes’ action as self-defense; he was acquitted. But after the trial, Katz couldn’t stop thinking about the wider context that created a situation in which one man could kill another over the price of a latte. So he began reconstructing the context of Shorty’s death, which led to what Publisher’s Weekly called “a defining history of Post-Nixon transformations of America’s welfare state.”
What Katz found, in short, is a story of failure.
In the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, one in three black men aged 20 to 29 are serving time in jail or otherwise under state supervision on any given day, according to the Sentencing Project. That’s roughly the same percentage of white men with bachelor’s degrees. The difference in black and white college graduation rates was wider in 2000 than in 1940.
Katz writes that for the most part, segregation was much higher in 2000 than in 1860, 1910 or 1930. According to a survey drawing numbers from the 2010 Census, Philadelphia ranks 9th in segregation by race, and according to a Stanford University study published just last week, we’re the third most financially segregated metropolitan area in the country.
In his book, Katz quotes the bottom-line findings of urban scholars: “The fundamental reality is one of growing economic segregation in the context of overall rising inequality. People of different income classes are moving away from each other not just in how much income they have but also in where they live. America is breaking down into economically homogenous enclaves.”
In other words, we’re becoming a nation of bankers and butlers. Occupiers call it the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. Katz and like-minded academics call it “the dual city.”
Since all data reveals that the inequality that motivated riots of the 1960s and early 1970s has only gotten worse, why then, Katz wonders, has no one lit the match?
“Why is it that black men who are unable to leave bleak, inner-city neighborhoods have turned their rage inward on one another and not, as they did 40 and 50 years ago, on the agents and symbols of a politics, culture and economy that exclude them from first-class citizenship?”
Katz looks for answers in the relationship between black men and the labor market. He tackles the myth about the role of deindustrialization affecting black men and the labor market in Northeastern cities. It’s a cliche recycled in many a newspaper article that begins something like, “Drug dealers sling their trade in the shadows of the factories that employed their grandparents and parents.”
“Deindustrialization is way overblown as a cause of lack of black opportunity and poverty because certainly in Philadelphia, and most other cities with the exception of a few places like Detroit and maybe Chicago, manufacturing employment was not the major employment of African-Americans,” says Katz, adding that the data shows that most African-American men worked in the service industry and the public sector.
Disenfranchisement “has a way of depoliticizing people, zapping their energy for the kinds of collective action,” says Katz. “Then you put on top of that the drug economy and … it adds up to a picture of people who are angry and disaffected, and take out that anger on themselves. We really don’t see targets.”
Katz also spends a lot of time on differentiation, which he characterizes as a profound paradox of inequality. Differentiation—the process in which some African-Americans have succeeded despite institutional biases stacked against them—is an “engine” of inequality that paradoxically produces what seems like proof of equality.
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