Terrorism Is Politics by Other Means

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One of the great contributions of Arnold Hirsch's Making The Second Ghetto is the conception of racism not as deviancy, moral degeneracy, or stupidity, but as a political ideology whose employers' tactics differ according to class, but whose goals remain the same. 

The goal of post-war white Chicago was to keep African Americans sealed in the ghetto. Working-class and ethnic whites worked toward this goal through what Hirsch calls "communal violence," which is to say entire communities angling toward terrrorism:

Rioting was undertaken for particular reasons and not as a generalized expression of racial hostility. Those reasons, and not the external forces of social control, were primarily responsible for the development, intensity, and duration of disorder.

This politicized violence erupted with some regularity between the 1940s and 1960s in Chicago. It was it's most spectacular in Cicero. But it occured throughout the city -- at the Airport Homes, in Fernwood Park, in Englewood, in Bridgeport, in Park Manor. Violence was not restricted to "working-class" areas. African-American chemist Percy Julian was named Chicagoan of the Year in 1949. In 1950, white terrorists firebombed Julian's new home in suburban Oak Park. Twice. 

This kind of terrorism was never as effective as the kind of racist power deployed by the upper classes -- at the University of Chicago, for instance. Indeed, Hirsch's study left me thinking of terrorism as a weapon of the weak -- the unsubdued weak, but the weak all the same. Still, terrorism was a kind of power in Chicago, and Hirsch shows how it made it significantly harder for the advocates of integration to create housing across the city. Think of it like this: Al Qaeda can't end air travel, but it can certainly alter it. Likewise, the White Circle League couldn't stop black succession. But they could seal blacks in and thwart integrations. 

The point here is two-fold: First, terrorism in the mid-20th century, in the cradle of the North, was common. Second, the terrorism at least partially worked, and when considered as a compliment to the structural violence of developers and the forces of urban renewal, it certainly worked.

The ghetto is not a mistake. The racism of white ethnics in Chicago was not due to brainwashing, false consciousness or otherwise being too stupid to recognize their interests. On the contrary, it was the political strategy of one community, attempting to subvert the ambitions of another. The strategy was successful. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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