Race, Poverty, and American Cities

By John Charles Boger; Judith Welch Wegner | Go to book overview

pends, at least in part, on strong resident involvement in neighborhood improvement efforts. Community organizing efforts have had their ups and downs, but even during the fallow 1980s, which saw dramatic cutbacks in the federal VISTA program, community organizations played an important role in successful, though small-scale, inner-city improvement. 139 National networks such as ACORN, the Industrial Areas Foundation, Citizen Action, and National Peoples Action, as well as more local initiatives, fostered citizen activism on a wide range of neighborhood and national issues. Many of the recent anti-redlining successes, for example, are a direct result of community organizing. A number of foundations and church groups helped fund these efforts. While historically skeptical of mainstream politics, these groups became increasingly engaged in electoral politics, helping to elect their own and other activists. Some of the nation's most progressive mayors, state legislators, and urban Congress members were catapulted to office by these organizing efforts.


Conclusion

Clearly, any effort to address the nation's urban crisis must result from serious rethinking about how these problems are framed and should build coalitions of mutual self-interest between cities and suburbs.

The major obstacle to carrying out some version of this urban policy agenda is not economic but political. The political influence of powerful business interests and the Pentagon and military contractors have distorted national priorities. Add to this equation the changing metropolitan demographics, congressional gerrymandering, and the impact of racism, and the prospects for building a national agenda that helps rebuild cities appear difficult. Overcoming these obstacles requires political reforms that will both level the playing field and give relatively powerless groups a strong voice in setting national priorities. From a political perspective the key question is whether it is possible to forge a national electoral and governing coalition that incorporates city dwellers and some segment of the suburban population. In fact, most urban policies provide little incentive for suburbanites (including residents of blue-collar suburbs) to have a stake in the condition of the cities.

Urban political strategy is still based on the outdated view that urban constituencies--mayors, African Americans, Latinos, the poor, and community-based organizations--can, on their own, mobilize sufficient political resources (through voting, protest, generating public sympathy for their plight, and other strategies) to get Congress to address urban needs. But in recent decades officials of the USCM, the NLC, and other groups have learned that cities are increasingly relegated to the status of yet an-

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