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American Babylon

American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland

Robert O. Self
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: STU - Student edition
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    American Babylon
    Book Description:

    As the birthplace of the Black Panthers and a nationwide tax revolt, California embodied a crucial motif of the postwar United States: the rise of suburbs and the decline of cities, a process in which black and white histories inextricably joined.American Babylontells this story through Oakland and its nearby suburbs, tracing both the history of civil rights and black power politics as well as the history of suburbanization and home-owner politics. Robert Self shows that racial inequities in both New Deal and Great Society liberalism precipitated local struggles over land, jobs, taxes, and race within postwar metropolitan development. Black power and the tax revolt evolved together, in tension.

    American Babylondemonstrates that the history of civil rights and black liberation politics in California did not follow a southern model, but represented a long-term struggle for economic rights that began during the World War II years and continued through the rise of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. This struggle yielded a wide-ranging and profound critique of postwar metropolitan development and its foundation of class and racial segregation. Self traces the roots of the 1978 tax revolt to the 1940s, when home owners, real estate brokers, and the federal government used racial segregation and industrial property taxes to forge a middle-class lifestyle centered on property ownership.

    Using the East Bay as a starting point, Robert Self gives us a richly detailed, engaging narrative that uniquely integrates the most important racial liberation struggles and class politics of postwar America.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4417-3
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    The most significant political, economic, and spatial transformation in the postwar United States was the overdevelopment of suburbs and the underdevelopment of cities. As ostensible signifiers of this transformation, “white flight” and “urban decline” mask volatile and protracted social and political struggles over land, taxes, jobs, and public policy in the thirty years between 1945 and the late 1970s. Such struggles dominated postwar Oakland, California, and its nearby suburbs, ultimately giving rise to two of the nation’s most controversial political ideologies: a black power politics of community defense and empowerment and a neopopulist conservative homeowner politics among whites. In 1945...


    • 1 Industrial Garden
      (pp. 23-60)

      When the century’s most violent and bloody war came to a close in 1945, for whom in the United States had victory been secured? Americans, theSaturday Evening Postwrote, “are fighting for a glorious future of mass employment, mass production, and mass distribution and ownership.” A coming abundance was predicted, too, by Eric Johnston, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who wrote inAmerica Unlimitedof a “utopia of production” in the postwar age. Like many American opinionmakers, thePostand Johnston imagined an ascendant white American middle class unprecedented in size, wealth, and security—in their eyes...

    • 2 Working Class
      (pp. 61-95)

      The raucous celebration and heated social tensions on display in Oakland’s general strike spilled over into electoral politics. Drawing on the civic divisions exposed by the strike, labor leaders between 1945 and 1950 attempted to forge a progressive coalition, rhetorically united as “the public,” to defeat the conservative political forces that governed the city. Their attempt raised fundamental questions confronting postwar America. How would the class struggle that had divided the nation in the 1930s be resolved, and would trade unionism, empowered by the New Deal state, remain an instrument of working-class mobility? How would the nation’s working class preserve...

    • 3 Tax Dollar
      (pp. 96-132)

      Driving south from Oakland into the adjacent suburban community of San Leandro, an observer in 1948 would have found it impossible to know when he or she had crossed from one city into the other. The tree-lined streets and 1920s-era bungalows common to both would have offered no clue. Even the industrial landscape would have struck the casual observer rolling past small machine shops and warehouses as a single piece. Not far from the fading brown brick of the General Motors Durant plant on East Fourteenth Street in Oakland was the red brick Caterpillar Tractor plant in San Leandro. Both...


    • 4 Redistribution
      (pp. 135-176)

      Because capitalism demands that space be productive, Oakland’s civic and business leaders, every bit as much as their counterparts in San Leandro, Milpitas, and Fremont, sought the “best use” of the city’s land. “The choice is clear,” a city of Oakland report warned in the early 1960s, between “a welter of obsolescence” and a “comprehensive program aimed at reinvigorating our economy and enhancing the livability of our community.” Faced with an aging civic infrastructure, blocks and blocks of homes in disrepair, and a steep decline in property values in key parts of the city, Oakland planners and political leaders fretted...

    • 5 Opportunity Politics
      (pp. 177-214)

      In the late 1950s, urban renewal was still a gilded promise, not a catastrophe. Despite suburban industrialization, Oakland retained good jobs. The city still provided a meaningful “step up” for many families. And a revived liberal politics, both locally and nationally, seemed committed to extending opportunity across the social spectrum. But optimism and expectations were tempered by existing conditions and past experience, especially among the city’s African Americans. “In many fields of work, the job opportunities for the Negroes among the high school graduates are limited solely by their race,” Arthur Hellender of Alameda County’s Central Labor Council told the...


    • 6 Black Power
      (pp. 217-255)

      “The time has come for a declaration of independence in West Oakland,” Paul Cobb told an Oakland audience in 1968. “We live on an urban plantation. We have to plan our liberation.” Cobb, the son of an Oakland longshoreman and one of the city’s leading community organizers in the late 1960s, drew his metaphor from a language of anticolonial struggle that had become the dominant lexicon of black political movements by 1968. In that penultimate year of a decade of global uprisings against colonial rule, from Algiers to Prague, Luanda to Hanoi, African American intellectuals and activists in the United...

    • 7 White Noose
      (pp. 256-290)

      The suburban “white noose” surrounding the urban black community stood metaphorically for metropolitan inequality and segregation. Unwelcome in the South County (Southern Alameda County) suburbs, African Americans in Oakland were denied access to the region’s fastest growing employment and housing markets. Suburban Alameda County, from San Leandro through Fremont (and across the Santa Clara County line into Milpitas)wasclosed to black homebuyers in most important respects through the middle 1970s. But the denial of access was only one story. It must be joined to others. Suburban homeowners shaped regional distributions of opportunity and resources in more ways than just...

    • 8 Babylon
      (pp. 291-327)

      “If we give freedom to ourselves right here in Babylon,” Eldridge Cleaver told an audience in the late 1960s, “we will give freedom to the world.” For Cleaver, Babylon was America. But the Black Panther Party increasingly cast California, and Oakland itself, in this role. Oakland stood for the national condition of black America: a colonized nation living in an underdeveloped urban ghetto amidst an inaccessible regional and national prosperity. In the decade between 1968 and 1978 these meanings acquired even greater resonance. During these years African Americans in Oakland, led first by radicals and subsequently by liberals, looked to...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 328-334)

    The story of this book ends at a poignant but ambivalent moment. The enormous costs of postwar metropolitan growth in the East Bay had become undeniable. “Those who govern American cities today face such terrible problems that no solutions seem achievable,” wrote Paul Jacobs with more than a hint of defeatism.¹ But a new generation of political movements, from both the liberal left and the conservative right, sought to revive and reinvent the promise of California as a place of economic security and upward mobility. As they did so, they moved ever more explicitly into contention, framing a contest that...

  11. Appendix: Population, Housing, and Taxes
    (pp. 335-338)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 339-378)
  13. Index
    (pp. 379-386)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 387-387)