Thursday October 21, 2021
It popped into my head – Pruitt-Igoe. It’s been fifty years since I thought about it.
I was reading Fiona Hill’s book. I’m getting near the end of her book. It’s not a book I can read quickly. I need to think about the facts and the ideas she presents. Last night I read that the wealth of the richest Americans increased during the pandemic by fifty percent to a little over 4.5 trillion dollars. This group is made up of 719 people. That’s and average of about Seven billion per person.
I also read that something like 87% of the stocks are owned by a tiny sliver of people.
Also in the news was the redistricting in Texas that allows 40% of their population to have influence over 60% of the government seats. I don’t think I have to tell you who that group is. Asians, who make up 5% of Texas’ population will have no representation. The list goes on.
Several states have now passed laws that say the legislatures can select the electors to go to the counting of votes of the Electoral College – regardless of how the people of the state voted. In other words, they can overturn the will of the people in the legislature.
Then I thought of Norman Maclean’s book about the Mann Gulch Fire. It was a grass fire. Smoke jumpers had parachuted into the Mann Gulch to set up a line to stop the fire’s advance. They saw it burning below them. They began their work. The fire advanced.
Grass fires are different than forest fires. They are swift. They are hot. They are gone.
I knew how you defend against being consumed by such a fire. You start another fire and as it begins to spread you step into the charred remains. Then when the larger fire comes it will move around you because there is no fuel for it to burn where you are.
Apparently, most of the smoke jumpers did not know this technique. They tried to out run the fire. One or two made it to the rocky draw. Most did not. Only the supervisor survived by lighting a second fire. He tried to get his men to listen, but it was too late. The fire was so close they couldn’t hear him. Fear had overwhelmed them. The fire was roaring and the noise of it and their own fear made it impossible to listen. They ran. They died. He lit a secondary fire and got inside the circle just in time. He laid on the ground face down as the fire’s rushing wind picked his body up and slammed it to the gourd three times. Then it was over. All that was left were charred remains.
Fiona Hill talks about how in Britain they are separated subtlety by class. How the wealthy shipbuilders of a previous century had whipped up racial fears and had workers set upon each other. They were told and believed that immigrants were taking their jobs. Hill points out that in the U.S. the divides are more obvious and stricter. In both the U.S. and Britain the idea of White Supremacy becomes popular in desperate times. Somehow people are told they are being cheeated, not given their due, and it’s another group’s fault. Hill points out that if you are working class your problems are the same. It’s not race; it’s class.
That’s when Pruitt-Igoe popped into my head.
Pruitt-Igoe was a high-rise housing development in St Louis. Built in 1954 to house low income (ie black) people, it was touted as – all, all kinds of things. By the 1970s it was crime ridden, vandalized and dangerous. It was blown up in 1972. The area was fenced off and it sits now as a forest inside of St. Louis.
At the time of its implosion I was studying race relations. Pruitt -Igoe came up, as did the Moynihan Report, as did mention of a study whose name I wish I could remember. That study outlined the signs of a neighborhood in decline. There were seven or ten steps to the decline and they weren’t necessarily obvious – at first.
What were the causes of racial problems? What were the solutions?
First and foremost – it was not really a problem of race. Race was a mask, class was the problem.
What defines a class of people? Commonly held values.
In the case of the working class, if they can be divided against themselves then they will oppress each other and the wealthier class can exploit them. Ta-dah!
In psychology terms, as Eric Berne, Author of “Games People Play” put it “Let’s you and him fight.”
Hill points out how the working class in Britain were set upon each other dividing by immigrant versus more established. In America, it was easier to do it by race.
In America, I learned that back in the 1970s most black people were lower class and therefore if you saw a black person you could assume they were lower class and you did this unconsciously.
That’s not to say you couldn’t make exceptions. That’s the nature of prejudice. “Oh, he’s different than them.” This was applied to prominent black actors and singers like: Sidney Poitier, Samy Davis Jr, and Harry Belafonte.
What was the solution to racial discrimination? The only thing that had been shown to work was putting people on different sides in the same job working shoulder to shoulder. I have never been in combat, but when my son was a young teen he got into paintball, We went to weekend war-games. I gotta tell you, when the stuff is flying you don’t really care what color the person next to you is as long as they have your back.
The other thing that helps, that elevates the situation is education. Education is the ticket out of poverty. Hill points out that if one is desperately poor they need a lot of help. She didn’t go to one school because her parents could not afford the school uniform.
During the pandemic many childcare and after school programs shut down. What’s a working parent to do? The burden falls mainly to women and they were forced to leave the work force in droves. So it’s not a matter of “they don’t want to work anymore,” but rather how can they? “Who’s going to take care of my kids?” Certainly not the Reagan Thatcher Republicans.
I see a fire on the horizon. It used to be a small orange line. It was far away. “It will burn itself out,” I told myself. “It will go away.”
It hasn’t, and, I fear, it won’t.
We don’t have much time. It may be too late. Can we take away the fuel that feeds this fire? Can we stop it? Can it be contained or is it too late?