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22 April 2011

Using Rachel

I've made the decision a while back to refrain from posting contentious stuff on Facebook and instead to funnel all of that thought- argument-provoking stuff here to my blog. I strayed from my own guidelines this week and re-posted a clip from The Rachel Maddow Show on my FB wall that was related to my hometown. I posted it to FB because I know that few people keep up with this blog, and I thought that some friends who either used to or still do live in my hometown would be interested. Anyway, I feel compelled to write some about it here, especially since there have been several comments to the FB post.

I don't like Rachel Maddow. As I've written before, I generally find Ms. Maddow to be unnecessarily divisive. In this case, her characterization of the troubles besetting Benton Harbor, Michigan, was rather glib and in many cases uninformed. That said, I appreciate that a national figure is calling attention to a situation that is too readily accepted as unproblematic by those who live in the region (or at least not problematic enough to elicit action).

The overarching problem is one of perspective. We typically think about our lives and our social world in individualistic terms. For example, why is St. Joe relatively prosperous? Well, it is full of "good people that work hard," who have "pride" and are "sensible." Why is Benton Harbor so worse off? Well, the implication is that "they" are bad people who are lazy, who lack pride and are irresponsible. By reasoning individualistically, we severely limit the scope of our responses.

A sociological perspective--one that takes larger level consideration into account--would point to institutional problems like race and the economy. Benton Harbor's troubles go back a very long way, but they start to get appreciably bad during deindustrialization. Beginning in the 1960s, Midwestern factories began relocating to the South where labor costs were cheaper (i.e. there were more poor people willing to work for lower wages). This devastated many Northern industrial cities, resulting in the so-called Rust Belt. Once thriving cities such as Gary, Indiana, Detroit, and Benton Harbor, Michigan, saw record unemployment. Many of these recently unemployed were Southern blacks who were part of the Great Migration of the early-1900s. With a lack of social networks and constraints to labor mobility, these places quickly devolved into demilitarized zones. Those who were able to escape, did. These privileged folks had larger social networks from which to draw and fewer constraints to their mobility--oh, and they were disproportionately white, giving rise to the term White Flight. If we look to Benton Harbor, we have almost the perfect example of this. A once racially-diverse, thriving community loses much of its factory jobs and with them the relatively affluent whites to now-greener pastures across the river, leaving behind the poor black unemployed to fend for themselves.

So, what in the way of solutions? The State of Michigan has taken over Benton Harbor's democratically elected government. Given the city's history of failures and corruption, it seems like a completely reasonable solution, but what might be the unintended consequences of such an intrusive action? If we look to the Arab world right now, we see several examples of what happens when people don't feel that they have a voice in their government: they tend to rise up in defiance. Now, it is unlikely that the people of Benton Harbor will become guerrilla fighters, attempting to win back independence from the state, but it is entirely possible that crime rates--already fairly high--will get even worse. What is needed instead are jobs. If Whirlpool really wants to make a lasting difference in the community, it should bring back its factories instead of throwing money at well-meaning but inconsequential civic improvement projects; it should pay for school children to go to college, and it should encourage them to return to their hometown, to make it a better place instead of encouraging gentrification.

To the people of St. Joe: if you don't want authors, academics, and commentators "intruding" on your affairs, then get your goddamn house in order! For too long, we dismissed the black/white, stable/poor dichotomous status quo of the Twin Cities. Everything is not OK.

UPDATE: the New York Times has a piece on Benton Harbor's emergency management.

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