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The African American Urban Experience
(Perspectives from the Colonial Period to the Present)

Joe W. Trotter, Earl Lewis & Tera W. Hunter, eds.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
£ 17.99, 340 pages, ISBN 0-312-29465-4.

Françoise Clary
Université de Rouen

Enriching our approaches of African American urban history, The African American Urban Experience is a collection of fourteen noteworthy essays, a product of several conferences, seminars and lecture series sponsored by the Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE) and the Midwest Consortium for Black Studies (MCBS), edited by Joe W. Trotter, Earl Lewis and Tera W. Hunter. This substantial study, that deftly integrates a variety of perspectives, highlights the gradual emergence of black labor and working-class history as a field of serious scholarly enquiry.

Arguing convincingly for a fuller understanding of social conflict, cooperation and alliance building—since even as groups of blacks and whites fought pitched battles at work and in public spaces, other blacks and whites formed alliances on the left, right and center—the authors of the essays collected in this volume show how historical studies can be at once the means and the end to the institutionalization of power. Many authors of the collected essays have conscientiously sought to think through—to re-imagine—how black urban life relates to the larger context of global economic, social, and political changes.

Refreshing in its conception, this volume provides stimulating interdisciplinary perspectives on African American history. Divided into three parts, this collection of essays correlates history, policy and intergroups relations with a special attention to labor matters, cross-ethnic coalition building and the usefulness of racial difference for a whole range of social actors.

Comprised of five essays with a focus on historical perspectives, Part one presents an interesting assessment of both nineteenth- and twentieth-century black urban life. This section offers a compelling way to acknowledge the slavey roots of black urban life. In “Urban Alliances: The Emergence of Race-Based Populism in the Age of Jackson” [23-34], James Oliver Horton examines the development of race-based populism, the alliance built around race and working-class status, persuasively arguing that pre-Revolutionary whites—indentured servants and dock workers—often made common cause with their enslaved black counterparts, while Ronald Lewis in “Industrial Slavery: Linking the Periphery and the Core” [35-57] offers a detailed study of the place of industrial slavery within the larger context of rural plantation slavery in antebellum America. Focusing on antebellum steamboats, Thomas Buchanan’s “Black Life on the Mississippi: African American Steamboat Laborers and the Work Culture of Antebellum Western Steamboats” [58-75] convincingly accents the racialization of work in early industrial America. Based upon her study of working-class black women in postbellum Atlanta, Georgia, Tera Hunter offers a challenging critical review of Du Bois’s ideas about race, women, and work in “‘The Brotherly Love’ for Which This City is Proverbial Should Extend to All” [76-98]. Finally, Quintard Taylor’s “Urban Black Labor in the West, 1849-1949: Reconceptualizing the Image of a Region” [99-120] examines a hundred years of black western civilization while raising the important issue of the representation of the West as a racial frontier where black people could expect freedom.

Also comprised of five essays, Part two provides a series of social scientific assessments of contemporary black urban life. Alice O’ Connor’s “Race and Class in Chicago-School Sociology: The Underclass Concept in Historical Perspective” [123-140] explores the connection between past and present perspectives in research on urban poverty, race and social policy. What is particularly interesting is O’Connor’s contention that a relationship exists between the underclass concept and the older tradition of social scientific research of the “Chicago School” of Sociology that, according to O’Connor, influenced both Daniel Moynihan’s study of the black family in 1965 and William Wilson’s research on black Urban poverty during the 1970s and 1980s. Then economist Susan McElroy’s essay “Black + Woman = Work: Gender Dimension of the African American Economic Experience” [141-55] retains the reader’s attention as she probes factors behind the decline of black women’s relative income gains by the 1980s. What is worth noting is McElroy’s use of key sociological and economic models to explain why educational choices are made and how these choices effect earnings differences by race and gender. Interestingly, McElroy’s view of race and gender invites the interpretation that economists invariably treat race as a factor impervious to precise measurement.

Labor market discrimination models of economic inequality are given fresh appraisal by William Darity and Patrick L. Mason in “Evidence on Discrimination in Employment: Codes of Color, Codes of Gender” [156-86], where once again apparent contradictions about contemporary discrimination by race and gender create a fruitful tension that yields a challenging standpoint about civil rights legislation and Affirmative Action that “purged” most overt forms of discrimination from American society while covert and subtle forms of discrimination persist. Some breaks with William J. Wilson’s emphasis on the role of class and economic transformation in the expansion of Black urban poverty during the 1970s and 1980s but also greater continuities with the traditional appraisal of the social dynamics of race, class and space are found in Karen J. Gibson’s “Race, Class and Space: An Examination of Underclass Notions in the Steel and Motor Cities” [187-208]. Calling attention to race as the key factor explaining the racial disparity in employment rates, Gibson focuses on the non-Hispanic white poor, emphasizing the need to recognize poverty as a multi-racial phenomenon. In his essay “The Black Community Building Process in Post-Urban Disorder Detroit, 1967-1997” [209-40], historian Richard Walter Thomas aptly extends his notion of the community-building process to the “post-urban disorder” period (1967-1997) in Detroit. Bringing to light the sum total of the historical efforts of black individuals, institutions, and organizations to survive and progress as a people and to create communal presence, Thomas carefully documents the responses of black Detroit to the urban violence of 1967 and the rise of black youth against youth violence in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this essay worth pondering, Thomas argues convincingly that neither moderates nor militants were prepared to address the upsurge of teenage violence during the mid 1980s. Capitalizing on his argument, he contextualizes it by explaining how a new organization, Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD) emerged at the center of the community-building process.

The remainder of the book offers, in Part three, comparative perspectives on race, class, and ethnicity in twentieth-century America. Chris Friday is especially effective in the analysis of the transformation of scholarship on Asian American workers, which is the subject of “Asian American Labor and Historical Interpretation” [243-66]. Friday’s essay adroitly brings out certain similarities in the transformation of Asian and African American labor and working-class history while disclosing substantial differences in the experiences of the two groups. Examining the complicated development of Latino/Latina labor and working-class history, historian Camille Guerin-Gonzales shows in “Conversing Across Boundaries of Race, Ethnicity, Class, Gender and Region: Latino and Latina Labor History” [267-86] how twentieth-century writers—in much the same way as early twentieth-century black labor historians—counteracted racist portrayals of Mexicans as workers and as people and produced their studies as tools in the struggle for social justice for Latino workers, including the elimination of discriminatory immigration laws and repressive labor practices. Going further, Guerin-Gonzales also notes the influence of cultural historians as well as the evolution of labor studies into a more gender—and culture—conscious field of scholarship. Focusing on the development of Chicago’s multiethnic and multiracial labor force during the early twentieth century, labor historian James Barrett offers in “Ethnic and Racial Fragmentation: Toward a Reinterpretation of a Local Labor Movement” [287-309] an illuminating reinterpretation of the role of racial and ethnic fragmentation in the decline of the city’s organized labor movement. While arguing that racial and ethnic fragmentation of the working class facilitated the downfall of Chicago’s labor movement, Barrett also accents the impact of class rather than race war as the determinant factor in the decline of organized labor in the years after World War one. Finally, Alan Dawley provides insight into shifting definitions of race in U.S. society. In a subtle analysis, he argues that the defeat of racial Darwinism ushered in two different approaches to race by the 1960s, and offers a critical understanding of how differences within whiteness may serve to undo whiteness as a racial supremacy. Then Dawley proceeds to an examination of the emergence of studies focusing on the social construction of race as an idea. Suggesting that Europeans have their own versions of race-based inequality owing to the legacy of slavery and colonialism, Dawley draws attention to the multi-ethnic and global nature of class formation under capitalist expansion as well as to the racialization of a variety of group experiences, whether they be Asian American, Latino or African American.

This collection of essays is not only worth reading and pondering; it is also important to scholars of race and ethnicity.


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