I read American Babylon after hearing about it on the radio and came away impressed with the author’s ability to make a remarkably complex process – the interplay of suburban development, urban decline, racial politics, and civil rights – accessible to an amateur such as myself.
The book lays out a persuasive explanation of why things are they way they are in Oakland, and by (my) extension in many urban areas around the country, including my hometown of Brooklyn. In doing so, it seems to me to be the best sort of historical analysis: rigorous, remarkably detailed, and carefully documented, but useful to the public at large. Highly recommended.
Robert Selfs “American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland” deserve the attention of grassroots, political activists, as much as academics. It is a brilliant analysis of the post-World War Two business strategy for Oakland, California and the boom (and boomerang to Oakland) in housing and jobs elsewhere in Alameda County that resulted.
Self-shows how the decline of Oakland was the other side of the coin in the creation of new communities in the open spaces nearby. He lays out the class and race contexts of the suburbanization process and shows the consequences for and responses to the labour movement and African Americans to the changes that were wrought. “American Babylon” thus provides, for example, an interesting account of the Black Panther Party.
Finally, using this region in northern California as a case study, the book examines the origins of the anti-property tax movement, when the suburbs regime went sour. Since California is still embroiled over the same issues this book addresses — taxes, urban revitalization, de-industrialization, racial equality, and the political and environmental impacts of suburban growth — Robert Selfs “American Babylon” could not be more timely.
Robert Selfs book should interest readers interested in understanding the aftermath of urban renewal and development in US cities and the politics of race and class in the post-WWII to 1975 period. Selfs work makes a contribution to studies of urban politics and the histories of cities and of the Civil Rights era by pointing to what has often been ignored or left invisible: that the so-called problems of people living in cities are often directly related to the overdevelopment of their surrounding suburbs (the noose), and that the problems of people of color in this country are directly related to the privileges of white people, structurally and historically.
Thus, Selfs book shows intimately and concretely how one might explore the dynamics of structural, institutionalised racism, in the post-Civil Rights era, when we all thought that the problem of blatant individualised racism had been solved.
Also, the book will be useful for those of us living and work or travelling through the Bay Area: It adds another part of the story, and links the decline of Oakland with the rise of Silicon Valley, and with shifting terrains of race and class politics.
It also provides important historical perspective on the forces that started the long trajectory that we now live, the decisions that sowed the seeds for the so-called ghettos, but also for the gentrification and displacement that threatens to displace our communities today.
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