The long arc of American activism

Never one for vapid virtue signaling, I’ve just been at a loss for words over the last two weeks as the murder of George Floyd lit a spark that turned into a forest fire. This reckoning was a long-time coming, and it appears to have finally come. May George rest in peace, but for the rest of us there can be no peace.

As a white male from the Midwest, albeit a die-hard progressive, I have never really known my place in life. What may seem like a curse is actually a blessing. I have been able to make life-long friends as interesting, diverse, and even discordant as my interests, which range from college football to equitable urbanism. While I have no singular place in life per se, I am aware of the moment I occupy in the arc of history. We all occupy this same moment, but most of us are unaware of of the arc that led us to this moment and informs where this is going next. While not conclusive, and admittedly from my own bias, hopefully this chronology will be useful as more activists enter government themselves.

America in 1940 was an urban nation held together by de jure segregation. WWII was coming to an end and a generation of GIs were returning home. Europe and Japan were in ruins while America was completely in-tact, including its racist institutions from the 1800s. The nation quickly repaid the debt racked up through the Great Depression and WWII.

America in 1950 sought change, and all options were on the table, but they elected to retain de jure segregation while changing urban patterns. The suburbs were born. Demographically, this had quickly become a nation of young families who had no interest in social upheaval. The government subsidized financing for white families to take part.

America in 1960 sought change and wanted a new direction. The urban renewal era redesigned urban patterns from the inside out. JFK was shot dead in Dallas. The Soviets had won the space race. The nation was engulfed in riots and activism. The decade closed with violent riots throughout the summer of 1969, and Nixon turning toward fascism. African Americans were migrating en masse from south to north in hopes of tolerance and opportunity.

America in 1970 was an enigma, pursuing different paths with no coherent strategy. The country was polarized following the summer of 1969 and Vietnam War. Suburbs were booming while the urban core, following a wave of investment in urban renewal and freeways, experienced disinvestment leading to deteriorating conditions and rising violent crime. American manufacturing was booming and unions guaranteed good jobs for people of all races.

America in 1980 was a disaster zone. Cities had reached rock-bottom, hollowed out by the freeways they themselves built to their new suburbs. Crack cocaine and violent criminals operated with impunity and the unaffected public, in their new cookie cutter homes, couldn’t have cared less. Government was focused on winning the arms race with the Soviet Union. Reaganomics created the yuppie class and indebted a nation. De jure segregation had been mostly dismantled and widespread affirmative action policies seemed to be working slowly.

America in 1990 was entering a new era. The Soviet threat was gone. Urban crime continued its climb and AIDS was rampant, although hyper-focused in a few cities. Jack Kemp and other neoliberals enacted urban reform and free trade. Black pastors campaigned for an infusion of police funding and the New Democrats delivered. A fledgling cultural scene had returned to cities, spurring early gentrification with the first wave of artist lofts.

America in 2000 had gone quiet. Revenge for 9/11 had overwhelmingly captured the public. 40 years of activism was erased as Americans repealed affirmative action, enacted DOMA, and “tough on crime” was the gospel in big-city politics. Americans grew bored with race politics and fought each other tooth and nail over Iraq and Afghanistan, flag burning, and other stupid things that didn’t matter. Public spending, local and federal, was all going to police and military. Then the economy collapsed.

America in 2010 had returned to its activist arc. Foreign wars lost popularity and along with tax breaks were blamed for fiscal distress. Leadership was desperate to rebuild the economy and had no bandwidth left over for reform. Obama campaigned against Clinton on hope and change and governed on norms, after hiring all of the New Democrats. Crime had plummeted in big cities, creating an endless runway for gentrification in nearly every city; however, public spending priorities were unchanged with funding increases for police and funding slashes for community programs and housing.

America in 2020 finds itself at the crossroads of all of these discordant issues and incomplete solutions. Policing, originally requested by black pastors, had no checks on its power. Manufacturing, originally an equitable source of good jobs, had become automated and de-unionized. A new drug crisis has rural (white) America in its grip this time. Cities hollowed out in the 1960s-1980s by disinvestment were now being further-hollowed out by gentrification. Public spending was constrained on one hand by continued tax breaks and on the other by policing and militarism, which had tripled (adjusted for inflation) in the last 40 years.


Two policies we really screwed up were the repeal of affirmative action and unmitigated gentrification. Affirmative action was an imperfect system that still yet did two things well: It recognized that hiring managers were racist and required them to include a fair share of minorities. The reality is that we are all racist, whether we admit it or not, and the anti-racist thing to do is to do the work to recognize and overcome our own hidden biases. Affirmative action was never supposed to magically fix everything over the 20 years we gave it a try, and America did not become a post-racial society just because it elected Barack Obama, who was simply the best politician in the 2008 race. The bottom line is that America was still a racist nation and de facto segregation was alive and growing, with or without de jure segregation.

We repealed AA policies in part over legitimate criticisms, primarily that black Americans were only being hired for entry-level jobs and weren’t being promoted from within, and because white Americans were always uncomfortable with it. Instead of doing the hard work of augmenting AA policies with more scholarships and educational opportunities, and ensuring that minorities were promoted alongside white counterparts, we did the easy thing and just got rid of it.

The second thing we really got wrong is policies that encouraged gentrification, which I would still argue was essential to turning around cities suffering from debilitating disinvestment. The problem is we never combined these strategies with mitigations or investments in community programs and housing. Once the market had shifted toward historic and walkable neighborhoods is exactly when local governments should have shifted to fully supporting community housing and programs.

America in 2030 is anyone’s best guess. I see two possible paths. We can continue down the current path of militarism, automation, corporate consolidation, tax breaks, gentrification, and incarceration. Fascism may be the only way to manage such a dystopia. Or we can pursue real change and finally do the hard work we have put off. Hope may seem dim at the moment, but if we spent just a decade working on urban inequality, addressing environmental issues, and deescalating police militarism, America in 2040 becomes a totally different proposition and Democracy may yet survive.

Either way, the 2020s are probably our last chance to get this right. There is no time left for false-starts or distractions like 9/11 or the Great Recession – crises never go to waste, but more often than not are leveraged by the elite to enact the wrong policies. While the elite waste their time, energy, and breath with vapid virtue signaling and corporate “statements on racism,” people are looking for real changes that have evaded us ever since the 1990s. We have become a nation that tears its people down rather than building them up. The problem with that is that our human capital is the only weapon we have capable of solving for the economic and environmental abyss ahead.


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