The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Beware a selective reading of history: a response to the call for civic unity

Last week Daniel London argued for urbanists to go beyond diversity to embrace a sense of civic unity as taught to us by the settlement house and social centre movements of a century ago. Today city planner Jamaal Green responds, warning us not to forget the undercurrents of racism and assimilationism present in those movements.

Cities: Chicago

Topics: Community organisation, Social conflict

The Houston Area Urban League building, the local branch of the National Urban League, which emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century to advocate for African Americans and against racial discrimination in US cities.
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I find Daniel London's calls for a better historicised study of cities and activism to be refreshing and incredibly necessary. He has a clear passion and deep understanding for the role that good historical analysis and study has in speaking to the concerns of our urban areas today. This is unambiguously a good message.

However, I took exception to his most recent post calling for a broader civic unity based on the settlement house and social centre movements. I fully agree that we need to work on creating effective, diverse urban coalitions that can collectively act to address greater urban issues. But I would caution that commentators should be very careful in drawing out historical examples of "progressive" intervention, especially from US history.

The settlement house movement was certainly a grand example of US urban progressivism from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, but we should be honest about the rhetoric its proponents engaged in, the techniques it used, and the people it purported to serve.

The settlement house movement was certainly a grand example of US urban progressivism, but we should be honest about the rhetoric its proponents engaged in, the techniques it used, and the people it purported to serve.

While London highlights the way that settlement house workers lived among the poor of many urban cities and worked with them, we should remember that the mission of settlement houses was largely that of assimilation — of 'whitening' new European immigrant populations. In The Condemnation of Blackness Khalil Gibran Muhammad speaks about how settlement house pioneers like Jane Addams explicitly critiqued the abuses and inequities of industrial capitalism and how it exploited new immigrants. The problem, according to these early activists, was not that the Irish, Italians, or Jews were naturally inferior or criminal but that social and economic inequalities were dehumanising and forced people into squalor and crime. Muhammad points out, though, that while activists in the settlement house movement like Addams made calls for the common humanity of immigrants and "traditional" Americans they either ignored or contributed to pathological arguments around black Americans. So, while immigrants were embraced and called to be full citizens, African-Americans were highlighted as culturally deficient and segregation was recommended as a preferred policy choice.

Such differences were made even starker when we compare the treatment of potential African-American settlement house workers. Black social work organisations and settlement houses were continually underfunded and those that were well-funded often had to contend with the racist assumptions of the white philanthropists that controlled their purse-strings.

My point here is not to say that London is wrong or a racist, but that if we are going to call for a historically-contextual approach to current urban problems, then we should try and take as holistic an approach as possible. This is not to say that we should not see the positive in the settlement house movement or their progressive mission, but it is highly selective to not point towards the greater historical context in which the movement arose. It's suspect to me to talk about the plights of new immigrants but ignore the racist anti-black politics that was central to the assimilation project lead by progressive organisations like Hull House and other settlement houses.

Why bring this up? Is it not unfair to point to the racist policies of these groups when we know that current activists are (supposedly) beyond issues regarding segregation? Am I saying the entire enterprise is bankrupt? Of course not. But I think that selectively highlighting such programs as an example of civic unity and using them as a model is not sound because it refuses to recognise legitimate conflict. The call for trying to move beyond diversity and create a singular civic unity often erases legitimate political conflict. There are legitimate reasons why we see conflict between different racial and ethnic groups within urban areas. There are historical reasons why we still have intense spatial segregation, poverty that is disproportionately racialised, and an urban politics that pits these groups against each other. We can celebrate Occupy Wall Street neighbourhood groups that are now encouraging dialogue, but that also ignores the hard work of community development groups and community organisers that have been trying to do such work for decades, but whose efforts have been constrained by the persistence of mistrust, racism, and conflict.

To put it succinctly, I'm not impressed by calls for civic unity — especially those using historical institutions like settlement houses as an example — that do not take seriously a fuller examination of historical and current politics regarding a social movement or organisation. It's telling that the National Urban League and NAACP spent much of their early years refuting and attacking the racist assumptions and policies pushed by white progressive organisations. Not talking about these tensions or efforts to bridge them leaves us with an empty call for unity that renders existing struggle and conflict illegitimate.


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