Between a Rock and a Hard Place

ghettoBlack on the Block by Mary Pattillo is a detailed and sobering look at the many complexities and conflicts black people of all classes endure in the city. The most intriguing part of Pattillo’s work is her observations of the middleman. Placed between the man (upper class people, usually whites) and the littleman (poor and working class people, usually thought of as black but can be other minorities as well), the middleman (middle and upper middle class blacks) is put in a tight and tricky situation. He frequently identifies with the littleman and shares the same national consciousness of being black in America, but at the same time aspires to the wealth and security a high social status provides. This creates a tension where he will sometimes serve the man and other times cater to the littleman. As Pattillo insists, the middleman is not an objective and unbiased person. He can swerve either way, or even both, based on his priorities, his wants, or even just to survive.

Two histories that deeply reveal the nuances of what middlemen did in the world are attempts of reforming Chicago’s education system and the building and eventual tearing down of the Chicago projects. In the nineties and early two thousands, Chicago middlemen, some from universities, some activists, and some bureaucrats of public school administrations, sought to overhaul to Chicago’s public schools. They wanted to create a nurturing environment that would attract excellent teachers and quality education in the poorer Chicago neighborhoods but encountered many problems. If they wanted high quality educators and people of decent income to improve the poor neighborhoods, that would inevitably lead to gentrification and drive out the very poor people they were trying to aid. Furthermore, reviving the schools with a completely new administration forced the schools to be very selective to who they admitted, which again alienated the poor.

In the end the middleman often has a difficult position, often as a bureaucrat who tries to help the poor but is forced to navigate through all the red tape and play the man’s rigged game. So it is not surprising that the littlemen blacks treated the middlemen blacks with suspicion. As far as they were concerned, the middlemen blacks were cronies of white bureaucracies that would lead to gentrification. They refused to be fooled by middlemen who carefully acted as token spokesmen to make the educational reforms better than they really were. The middlemen unfortunately did not administer a more socialist system that would serve the public but rather a capitalist one where reforms were “sold” to families who could afford them.

The middlemen played just as much of a complicated role during the creation, decay, and destruction of the projects. As Pattillo points out, black people aren’t a homogenous group that agrees on everything. They share a general national consciousness as “African-Americans”, she says, but are still individual people as well as members of different groups. When the projects were being built middlemen opposed public housing because they knew the projects would be badly maintained and thus decay into a ghetto of crime and poverty. The littlemen, on the other hand, were more optimistic because they saw the projects as an adequate replacement for run-down slums. In particular the middlemen were very conscious of losing their property value, and part of their wealth and stability that came with it. The middlemen also saw public housing as continuing to segregate white people from black people, as segregating and isolating the poor away from the rest of society and its vital networks, such as health care and the police.

Race and class are inextricably bound, Pattillo says. Indeed they heavily influenced public housing, not just for white people but for black people too. The American government spent its budget lavishly creating the suburbs – in fact, creating a whole lifestyle – for white people, and went to great lengths to make it affordable to even modest middle class white people. The projects, however, were neglected almost soon as they were built and became dilapidated as a result. The littlemen, whose original houses were demolished and replaced, were not consulted, and even their dignities as human beings were under question as they still are now. They were relocated not in a way that was constructive to them as human beings. Rather, they were herded in as part of a mechanical and oligarchical “master plan” to build a modern city.

The middlemen’s reaction to the projects, once they were installed, was ambivalent. They wanted to renew and “clean up” the projects, but that came with it’s own caveats. Renewed projects may attract middle class and white people, and hence bring the old monster of gentrification in. They also feared that asking for more maintenance of crime would result in more police brutality. Even the expression used at the time, “discipline”, implies forcefully “correcting” who are criminal and shiftless. Many of the middlemen were activists to reduce crime in the projects. Other middlemen were enraged at “the system” at betraying them yet again, and demanded the projects be completely demolished, which is what happened to some of them.

The conclusion you can draw from all this is that being a middleman is to be in a difficult place in the socioeconomic ladder. You usually share or feel obliged to share solidarity to the littlemen, which traces back to a deep social and racial past. At the same time you need to pay obeisance to the man whose rules you played and who you found some favor with to be a middleman in the first place. It’s a precarious balance and because humans are strange and complex beings always in want middlemen will always be faced with touch choices.

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