By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website
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.