Lester K. Spence, Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, focuses on black, racial, and urban politics in the neoliberal era. In an interview with the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), he shares his perspective on a false brand of economic and political “common sense” that black elites helped sell to black communities.
Lynn Parramore: In your book, Knocking the Hustle, you describe a shift in America that took place when a new crop of intellectuals successfully sold the idea that everybody and everything ought to be judged by market competition and market-oriented behavior, something you call the “neoliberal turn.” How did this change manifest in black communities?
Lester K. Spence: The change really begins in the 50s and early 60s, but takes a sharp turn in the late 60s and early 70s, when the middle class moves to the suburbs. Detroit’s population in 1950 is 1.9 million, but by 1960 it has already dropped significantly. This is a partial byproduct of federal policy and a partial byproduct of private action, but the dynamic was racialized: whites had access to the suburbs and blacks did not. Cities like Detroit become increasingly African American, and as blacks come to take up a larger proportion of the population, they gain more and more political power, which they use to elect representatives.
Black mayors take control of the black cities, but as these cities become black, their ability to garner revenue to provide social services drops dramatically. So one of the reasons that the neoliberal turn takes the form it does in black communities is because the cities that blacks increasingly live in are themselves altered by neoliberal policies.
The decrease in the ability of cities to collect tax revenues causes mayors to turn more to the bond rating market and to things like downtown development. And there is an alteration of the welfare state — we could think about welfare itself or things like the transition to public housing, which really alters the policy terrain that blacks can operate in. You increasingly see people begin to articulate neoliberal policies as a way for black folks to advance.
LP: Could you give an example?
LS: In Detroit in the 90s, by the time the neoliberal turn really takes shape, you see somebody like Dennis Archer, Sr., the city’s second black mayor, attempt to use what’s called “total quality management” to revamp Detroit’s bureaucracy. That’s a management strategy that was taught at MBA schools in the late 80s and early 90s that puts the customer and customer decisions at the forefront of bureaucracy formation. You see it in Bill Clinton and Al Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government [a task force to reform the way the federal government works] — but Archer is one of the first to implement it in a city. He brought in Ford executives in order to get the bureaucracies to think of citizens as consumers. This has an ideational impact.
You also see it in cities that are looking increasingly to downtown development and forced to transform downtowns into entertainment hubs. By the mid-to-late 90s, Detroit brought in three casinos, the idea being to give the city the types of jobs it once had when the automotive industry loomed large. Of course, it did not. They also created two new publicly subsidized sports stadiums. In the last few years, even as Detroit was dealing with bankruptcy, the state basically subsidized a new stadium for the Detroit Red Wings to the tune of about $300 million.
LP: So people living in cities are no longer citizens who require services to meet their needs but consumers in need of market-based solutions.
LP: The title of your book references “the hustle.” What is it and how is it reflected in black culture and entertainment?
LS: I begin the book by juxtaposing Nat Adderley and Oscar Brown’s “Work Song” that’s about a certain type of labor in the 1960s against Ace Hood’s, “Hustle Hard.” He does more than just describe a condition in which he’s consistently having to work to make ends meet for himself and his family. The video features Ace Hood in a regular East Coast neighborhood, and all around him, people engage in different hustles to get by. The seasons change, and although the things that people sell change, like in the summer they’re hustling water and in the winter they’re hustling coats and gloves, the hustle itself doesn’t change. He doesn’t give a critique of that situation, but actually makes a normative argument for it, suggesting that it is a good thing. If you want to work in the world, this is what you’re supposed to do. If you don’t do it, your value as a human being is significantly reduced.
Entrepreneurialism is seen as the key to black problems and the key to being fully human. We definitely see this some of Jay Z’s work and that of other MCs, although not as much lately given the shift towards Black Lives Matter-type cultural production.
LP: What’s wrong with entrepreneurialism?
LS: Empirically speaking, it doesn’t tend to work. We don’t really have examples of poor communities that become really successful through entrepreneurialism. Even when it does work, it only works for a thin slice of the population. One of the fundamental consequences of the neoliberal turn is a really sharp uptick in inequality in the United States. It’s higher now than it was during the Great Depression. This is partially attributable to the idea that entrepreneurship is our solution.
LP: You’ve discussed a tendency among black elites to come down harshly on the black family, blaming it for problems like poverty and incarceration. It’s hard not to think of Bill Cosby right now and his admonishing black people to behave better with his image of the ideal, respectable black family. How does this fit into the narrative of the neoliberal turn?
LS: The neoliberal turn isn’t just a set of policies; it also embeds a certain type of common sense, like the idea that what we need in black communities is more business development and entrepreneurialism. The theory is that once you have these, the results trickle down. It’s a black form of Reagonomics.
On the flip side, once you believe that black business or hustling hard is the solution, you have to explain why some people don’t succeed and why some families end up at the bottom. So the natural explanation is that people are poor because of something related to their own personal circumstance. Maybe they don’t have the right cultural appreciation of education; maybe it’s because men and women don’t make the right reproductive choices; maybe it’s because they’re more interested in buying Michael Jordans than books. Right? There are a whole host of rhetorics that become naturalized, making it seem as if black poverty is solely the product of black decisions.
Bill Cosby is a good example of this. He gave a speech in 2004 at the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in front of a black audience in which he argues that what’s happening now, particularly as a result of Brown v. Board, is solely the product of black populations and black choices, and what we need to do is to take our black family back.
We see the message that poverty is the product of black family decisions as opposed to larger structural dynamics in Cosby’s speech, or even going back 30 or 40 years in popular culture that we thought of as progressive. There’s John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. At the time it came out in 1991, the movie was deemed progressive, a critique of Reagan era policies and their effect on South Central Los Angeles. But it really argues that places like South Central L.A. are in trouble because black men haven’t done enough to take care of the black family.
LP: You write that the neoliberal turn is not the 21st century version of Jim Crow. Why is that framework problematic? Does racism mean something different in a neoliberal context?
LS: The concept of the new Jim Crow was popularized by a really important work by Michelle Alexander examining the criminal justice system. It’s a powerful phrase and it speaks to a black common sense about what going on now. It allows us to make easy sets of connections between some contemporary dynamics and what happened in the 1950s and late 1960s. We recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. That event looms large in our memory, and you can easily imagine people being more likely to engage in all kinds of political activity if they think of something as the new Jim Crow.
But the challenge is that even if we look at criminal justice, it’s not just blacks caught up in the dynamic. Even in the old Jim Crow that was designed to deal with blacks specifically through segregation, you see a number of white people who weren’t able to vote due to restrictions, though blacks were disproportionately affected.
If you look at the increase in incarceration, it’s not just blacks and it’s not just all blacks; it’s working-class-to-lower-income blacks. The new Jim Crow framework can’t really explain why that is. Why is it that I no longer fear the police? I don’t. I’ve been stopped a number of times, and I now treat police as I imagine whites do because I know and the police who engage with me know that I’m not the black people they are trying to socially control. I’m not in that population.
Politically, even as I do think the new Jim Crow concept enables us to mobilize in certain ways, it doesn’t mobilize us to effectively to deal with the class dynamics. The new Jim Crow makes it seem like it’s totally a race thing. There’s a way that you can organize around race that leaves class and inequality totally untouched. And we need to get at this race/class interaction that is prominent in places like Detroit or where I work now, in Baltimore.
LP: Can you talk about Barack Obama and his relationship to neoliberal ideas?
LS: I think a good example is My Brother’s Keeper (launched by Obama in 2014), which he talked about as a partial response to the wave of murders, including that of Trayvon Martin. He argued that if we brought together a robust suite of private-public partnerships, we could then identify a set of best practices that can help boys of color. Progressive women argued that he was ignoring the needs of girls of color, and that was an important critique. But the most important critique is one that very few people brought up, which is that Obama argued that My Brother’s Keeper wasn’t a big government program. He didn’t propose any increase in government spending, which, to be fair, would have been difficult under a Republican administration, but at least if he’d argued for it, he could have potentially created a constituency that could fight for it.
The other critique is that his primary assumption about the reason boys are on the wrong end of a variety of social and economic measures is because they’re not culturally predisposed to do the work necessary to do well in school. They don’t know how to deal with conflict, so all they do is get into fights and engage in other types of violence. Because they don’t have fathers in the home, they don’t know how to be good fathers themselves. Again, it argues that the reason they are at the bottom end economically is solely the function of culture. It has no structural dynamics at all.
Yet if we said that nuclear families are better than other forms of families (though I don’t necessarily agree with that), every bit of social science tells us that nuclear families are more likely to happen where people aren’t poor. So Obama is reversing the causal arrow. You don’t have to go to Marxist economists to find this. People who are poor tend to have families that look a certain way versus people that aren’t poor. If you have a robust safety net, families tend to have different types of outcomes than if don’t have it. This is Social Science 101.
LP: How does the neoliberal turn manifest in black megachurches like those led by popular ministers like T.D. James and Creflo Dollar?
LS: Even when Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive and running the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, there were different tendencies within black churches. Some, while not necessarily supporting the Jim Crow regime, definitely kind of acquiesced to it and were not interested in having their churchgoers be involved in anti-racist politics. At the same time, you had people using the church to connect to a really radical critique of capitalism and white supremacy.
In the 70s and into the 80s, this radical-to-left tendency is becoming less and less important in black churches. What you see instead is the growth of churches that use the Bible as a kind of self-help guide and promote the prosperity gospel, which holds that if you follow the Bible, you will become not only spiritually but materially wealthy. The flip side is that if you don’t follow the Bible, you’ll become poor. So somebody like Creflo Dollar [founder of the World Changers Church International based in College Park, Georgia] argues that you’re poor because you don’t have the right mindset. That’s naturalizing poverty.
Related is the growth of black megachurches with as many as 10,000 or even 20,000 members. They have their own community development corporations. Some of them actually look like corporations in their design and require a significant outlay of capital in order to operate. So even if they are not proposing the whole prosperity gospel, they have to propose some aspect of it in order to exist.
LP: It seems burdensome that in addition to paying taxes, churchgoers end up funding social services through tithing.
LS: States and local governments are now outsourcing some of their social service provisions to churches. This is problematic for several reasons. One is because of the important distinction between church and state. It’s all too likely that a church would use the resources to proselytize instead of provide services. Also, churches provide a function of spiritual guidance – they aren’t bureaucracies. People who work in churches don’t know how to deal with poverty or public housing provisions.
We wouldn’t expect a charity to fund NASA: the scale of the challenge is something that no private entity could actually fulfill. Well, it’s the same with social service provision. When people pay their tithe, the resources might really go to social services instead of lining somebody’s pocket, but those services are nowhere near what’s needed to deal with inequality. In a way, it demobilizes people when you connect this to the rhetoric that suggests that people are poor because of their own choices, it makes it more difficult for people to organize not just for more social services, but to get at structural dynamics.
LP: What does it take to challenge the neoliberal turn? What have we learned about what’s effective and what’s not?
LS: Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about a wrong-headed approach that posits that the reason we have gains is because of leaders like him who spoke to power and as a result were able to galvanize hundreds of thousands of folks in the South and the North to overturn the Jim Crow regime.
If you really look at the history, what you find instead is really deep organizing. What that charismatic leadership cannot do is build deep, enduring institutions to build the political capacity of regular folks. These institutions tend to have at least some modicum of democratic accountability. With the charismatic leadership model, there’s the idea that everything the leader says is correct. There are very few ways to hold them accountable or even create debate about strategies or tactics. But in a robust model of organizing, people can actually create conditions to lead themselves and engage in making decisions, whether we’re talking about labor issues, racial inequality, or #MeToo and gender inequality.
One of the things that happened with the neoliberal turn is that the ability of labor unions to organize was significantly reduced. In the 2012 strike that was the first of the current wave, the Chicago teacher’s union had to organize tens of thousands of teachers in all these local spaces to get them to understand why schools were being closed, how their current contract made educational circumstances worse as opposed to better, and how the possibility of losing income in the short-term would actually increase their ability to build in the future. They had to do this in a space where there were already a whole host of arguments about education (that it didn’t operate according to the values of the market) and about teachers’ unions (that they are the problem) — this whole common sense apparatus. They were able to contest it and replace it. The teacher’s strikes we’re seeing now across the country get at the deep organizing we have to engage in that works across time and is durable.
When you look at Black Lives Matter, it focused our attention to police killings as a function of a state that doesn’t work. People are able to use social media to quickly galvanize people and move them in interesting direct action ways. There have been some political successes: Marilyn Mosby [State’s Attorney for Baltimore] actually brought charges against police in Baltimore and we don’t have her election without Black Lives Matter. There have also been various Justice Department victories. But we need to connect the argument about state violence to a larger argument about economic violence. That’s where you need ideation work, like the work done in think tanks.
A lot of what we have to do is mundane work so that we can be ready when the moment comes; things like collecting data, building an archive. Maybe you get something unexpected — a candidate like Bernie Sanders. But the opportunity only means something as a result of the mundane work of preparation. Often women perform this kind of work. Our economy is based on labor that women aren’t really acknowledged for, and if you look at the political labor, a lot of the organizing labor tends to be done by women and it gets devalued. People focus on more on charismatic male leaders.
Overall, I think we need to focus more on developing institutions. Organizing has to start locally, maybe even best on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, educating citizens, giving them the ability to understand their situation and giving them another set of narratives. We need to work with these communities developing coalitions across cities and then states in order to promote policies and individuals who support them. Policies have to be about reorienting the economy in such a way where lower income people get the bulk of the resources as opposed to the dynamic that we have now.