Smith: Black Elites Helped Create Inequality

In looking back at the Black Power movement of the 1960s, MHC politics professor Preston H. Smith II said the issue of class played a far greater role in the movement’s development than many of its contemporaries realized.

At the time, black civic leaders passionately called for African Americans to band together and demand remedies to the stark inequalities they faced in the United States. But in retrospect, Smith said, scholars now see that those calls for racial solidarity obscured underlying class interests that did not value improving the lives of poor, working black people.

“We had underestimated the role of class interests,” Smith said. “There was an assumption of racial unity, an assumption of collective racial goals. And so there are findings that the black political class, in a sense, used racial unity as a way to mask their class agenda.”

In his most recent book, titled Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Postwar Chicago, Smith examines the development of Chicago’s housing policy as a way to uncover the class dynamics at work in the broader social movement.

“If you’re going to look at class questions, housing is a great policy area to look at because there’s a hierarchy within our society,” Smith said. “If you’re a homeowner, you’re on top, pretty much. If you rent a private apartment, you’re next in line, and if you’re a tenant in a public housing project, you’re at the bottom.

“I felt like taking up the housing question would give us some indication where [black civic leaders] stood on class questions,” he added.

In the book, published by the University of Minnesota Press, Smith dove deep into already existing scholarship, news reports, government records, and other archived materials to find evidence for his underlying thesis: that black elites in postwar Chicago contributed to greater economic segregation among African Americans.

“To be fair, black elites were secondary or junior partners in this whole enterprise,” Smith said, pointing to mayors, federal officials, and realtors as the main decision makers. “But they are complicit in the sense that they didn’t make this a priority in their own policy analysis or advocacy. They didn’t recognize they had to fight on the class front [at] the same time they’re fighting on the racial front.”