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William Sites: "So When, Exactly, Was Black Fordism? Race, History and Urban Theory"

Recent macrohistorical studies (Abu-Lughod 1999, Lewis 2002, Harris and Lewis 2001, Beauregard 2006) as well as historical monographs that examine race, class and spatial restructuring in the mid-twentieth-century U.S. city (Sugrue 1996, Self 2003, Avila 2003, Nicolaides 2002) increasingly challenge the predominant periodizations – and implicitly the conceptualizations – of fordism and postfordism.  This paper argues that the fordism/postfordism couplet, which focuses historically on the 1970s as fateful hinge-point, tends to compartmentalize issues of race in ways that occlude its centrality to multiple moments of twentieth-century urban restructuring.  I support this claim in three ways: first, by reviewing recent literature in economic history that undermines persistent notions of the post-World War II economic fortunes of African Americans as a Fordist “golden age” somehow cut short by 1970s deindustrialization; second, by pointing to emerging evidence that in post-war U.S. cities – even in Chicago, that prototypical Fordist city – public-sector employment may have constituted a more important mobility ladder than industrial employment for African Americans; and third, by suggesting that persuasive explanations for such findings need to account for black economic fortunes not as an inexorable product of a broader economic regime but rather as highly dependent on politics – a politics that has included repeatedly reconfigured sociospatial patterns of anti-black discrimination as well as selective moments of progressive political struggle and advance.  I conclude by observing that “neoliberalism” – which offers itself as a more robust conceptual term than post-fordism for characterizing the contemporary political-economy of U.S. capitalism – can only do so if neoliberalization is understood as a flexible set of processes and strategies, differentiated by space and scale, and interacting both opportunistically and contentiously with inherited sociospatial landscapes that are nationally distinctive and path dependent.  In this way, we might come to see how racial projects – of emancipation as well as subjection and revanchism – are profoundly interlaced with the sedimented and ongoing moments of urban restructuring that constitute the history of the American city.

About the Author

David Harvey is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and a leading theorist in the fields of urban studies, geographical political economy and sociospatial theory. He graduated from the University of Cambridge with a Ph.D in Geography, and held professorial posts at Oxford University and The Johns Hopkins University. He has written extensively and influentially on the political economy of globalization, urbanization, and cultural change, including Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development (2006), A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), Spaces of Hope (2000), Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (1996), The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), The Urban Experience (1989), The Limits to Capital (1982) and Social Justice and the City (1973). His numerous awards include the Outstanding Contributor Award of the Association of American Geographers. In 2007 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Professor Harvey’s contribution to the conference will focus on the relevance of the notion of the “right to the city” under contemporary conditions of globalization and neoliberalization.

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