Community Development in the Ghetto: a Review of Bennett Harrison’s Survey of Ghetto-Based Community Development


So what are we up to this month?

This will be the last, I promise you, of my series on community development. But before I move on to other topics, there remains one additional community development-relevant issue that needs to be discussed: race.

The underlying theme of the first two articles was whether community development suffered from goal confusion. Could “place-based” redevelopment be integrated effectively with assimilation-focused community development. In this review, I suggest that community development goal confusion involves yet another dynamic that further confuses the goal structure of its initiatives. That dynamic is race. More often than not, community development initiative happen in predominately African-American low-income neighborhoods–the so-called ghetto in days of yore. In this article I raise the issue as to whether the residents of these neighborhoods unequivocally prefer assimilation over a neighborhood that belongs to the “community”.  If so, I simply want to discuss a possible schism in Black political culture which, if still relevant today, will negatively affect an already conflict-ridden community development initiative.

cph.3a10455 Tuskegee Institute faculty with Andrew Carnegie, Tuskegee, Alabama Shown from left to right, seated in front row: R.C. Ogden; Mrs. Booker T. Washington (Margaret James Murray Washington); Booker T. Washington; Andrew Carnegie; and an unidentified person. 1906 Frances Benjamin Johnston

cph.3a10455 Tuskegee Institute faculty with Andrew Carnegie, Tuskegee, Alabama Shown from left to right, seated in front row: R.C. Ogden; Mrs. Booker T. Washington (Margaret James Murray Washington); Booker T. Washington; Andrew Carnegie; and an unidentified person.
1906 Frances Benjamin Johnston

Traditionally, community development has defined “place” as a urban neighborhood populated by disadvantaged low-income ethnic/racial minorities. In the last issue, I argued that place-based community development strategies and initiatives invited a conflict between two goals (i.e. assimilation versus physical redevelopment of a neighborhood).  The solution I advocated was to ditch “the place” and pursue assimilation-strategies and initiatives. That would seem to work well, so long as the target population wanted to assimilate into mainstream America. But what if a sizeable percentage do not want to assimilate, or define their personal assimilation in such a way that mainstream America will not easily accept these entrants? The possibility also exists that individuals may want the “characteristics associated with assimilation” (jobs, education, status, wealth, security etc.), but identify so strongly with a place-based culture that they can enter  mainstream society without conflict. Assimilation in such a context becomes a cul du sac.

If so, “the place” the neighborhood threatens to evolve into a residential prison–even if no one particularly intends it to be so. Growth is accommodated by simply building a larger prison–moving into an adjoining suburb or neighborhood for example. A self-reinforcing feedback loop can result in behaviors and socialization, which rightfully or wrongly results in negative counter-reaction by some in the mainstream society (along the lines described in Arnold R. Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto). While the argument can be made that such a counter-reaction is in fact discrimination or outright racism, I’m not sure where that gets us. Actually, I do know where it gets us–right where we seem to be as a nation at the present time. We argue, talk past each other, moralize, and polarize (zero-sum solutions). We hope to solve it by elections–but I suspect that won’t work. What happens if ghettos can’t, or won’t, assimilate?

The Perpetual Ghetto?

Niagara Movement 1905 in Fort Erie Canada

Niagara Movement 1905 in Fort Erie Canada

In essence, without effective and meaningful assimilation, the ghetto becomes self-perpetuating, builds walls, and develops over time its own culture and identity. Its economy becomes more like a colony than a sub-set of the overall economic system. The ghetto can expand, it can even move, but “the place” remains–its resident population still locked into a fixed location. Sadly, the logic behind this line of thought is not easily dispelled, no matter how obnoxious it may be. If assimilation is rejected, or blocked, the “place” and the “identity” it provides becomes the focus whether one wants that or not. That’s how race enters the discussion about community development and “place”.

The issue I raise is whether African-American culture unequivocally  embraces assimilation as its ultimate goal–or is it divided. For those who prefer assimilation do they sense that assimilation as they define it is desirable, but near-impossible? Do others simply prefer for their own reasons to live in a “place” apart from the mainstream. Do others primarily identify with a place, its heritage and identify, and the sense of community it imparts? In all these cases assimilation breaks down. The residential prison bars become thicker. The world divides between those “in” and those “out”. The place can become a fortress for those on the inside as well as a colony to those on the outside.

All this can be rather confusing because many studies have indicated that we are more “integrated”, i.e. have assimilated, more than ever before. Blacks have moved in droves, for example, into the former lily-white suburbs. Some of that movement  has been mislabeled as the “suburbanization of poverty”. This is a partially correct observation that ignores another reality which is that a large number of African-Americans may have indeed successfully assimilated into the mainstream society. Yet despite some hopeful signs of assimilation, I still see the Sandtowns, Fergusons, NE and SE Washington DC (and a hundred other neighborhoods across the country)–and I realize the old-style ghetto persists.

What’s going on? Looking for a perspective that is sympathetic, but separated from today’s rhetoric, stresses and correctness, I found my old standby–Bennett Harrison.  Writing  during another troubled time in our turbulent racial history (after the Sixties riots) Bennett Harrison, wrote an article, “Ghetto Economic Development”, that, I think can be profitably reread. The article raises questions and offers insight relevant to economic and community developers today. The basic question he tackles is whether assimilation into mainstream American society/economy is an unquestioned goal for African-American community development? Is the African-American economic development political culture divided on whether it wants assimilation on mainstream terms–or any terms at all? If so, how does community development respond?

Bennett Harrison, “Ghetto Economic Development: a Survey”

( Journal of Economic Literature, Vol 12, No. 1(March 1974), pp. 1-37 and Published by American Economic Association

After the civil rights movement, the Great Society, the urban riots of the 1960’s, and during the Nixon Thermidor, Harrison believed low-income Big City African-American neighborhoods/ghettos economic/community development followed two quite divergent paths. Each path reflected an approach made prominent and respectable by turn of the century Black intellectuals: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.  Each reacted, “spoke to”, their known environment and experience, and each advocated an approach for Blacks to achieve their desired end-goal. The two approaches, which he labels integrationist and separatist, seem relevant to contemporary economic/community development. Harrison, a white intellectual, argues for a separatist path, and posits that path emerged dominant in the 1970’s. His article developed that theme.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington, America’s most influential Black intellectual and leader in the period 1890 through 1915, advocated integration of African-Americans into the economic mainstream–parlaying that success into social and political equality. He was “the first national black spokesmen for economic ‘self-development’ … [advocating] ‘black capitalism‘ [small business] in the belief that whites would accept blacks as equals only after the latter developed experience and expertise in orthodox business practice.” (p. 2) His goal is congruent with “assimilation” of blacks into mainstream American society.

In 1895, Washington negotiated his famous “Atlanta Compromise” calling for individual self-help, a black-relevant version of Horatio Alger that stressed ‘industry, thrift, intelligence and property’ (his words). For him, education and entrepreneurship were a surer path than directly challenging either Jim Crow laws or seeking political and civil rights. Washington, born a slave, reflected the 95% of American blacks who at that pre-Great Migration time lived in the South. He served as political advisor to Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and founded the National Business League, the precursor of early black chambers of commerce. His long-term goal, of course, was to facilitate entry into the American economic mainstream that would eliminate political and economic inequality and attain civil rights.

His competitor (and rival) W. E. B. DuBois, born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was the first African-American to be awarded a doctorate (Harvard). In the middle/late 1890s, he taught history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois at first worked within the confines of the Atlanta Compromise–until 1905 when he co-led the famous Niagara Movement. The Niagara Movement demanded political and civil rights for blacks as its highest priority–African-American political rights, not success of individual entrepreneurs was his goal.  In 1909  he co-founded the NAACP to serve as the vehicle for that change.

Washington bitterly and intensely opposed Du Bois until the former’s death in 1915. The chief elements of Du Bois’ approach to community/economic development were: “black separation, mutual cooperation, worker’s control, and economic planning”. He called it “socialism without nationalism”, advocating “Negro cooperative stores [that] would obtain their goods from Negro producers, which would be supplied raw materials from Negro farmers. Intermediate stages of production such as extractive industries and transportation were to be Negro controlled”. (p. 2). Why was Du Bois so determined to separate and develop a parallel “socialist” economy? Back then the metaphor used was “a colony”–and it was argued that African-American economy was a colony of the American “mainstream” economy. Du Bois wanted to achieve independence for American Black residential colonies.

The Ghetto as Colony

Harrison’s treats the metaphor seriously, and presents evidence that residents and black activists bought into the metaphor as well. For example, Roy Innis, 1970’s chair of CORE [a self-acclaimed Garveyite] advocated that black ghettos become a political jurisdiction independent from the city jurisdiction whose relationship with the ghetto he described as “a sub-colonial appendage of the city”. Malcom X believed that the mainstream economy exploited ghettos in a characteristic colony-like manner:  “whenever you take money (i.e. profits) out of the neighborhood and spend it in another neighborhood, the neighborhood in which you spend it gets richer and richer, and the neighborhood in which you take it gets poorer and poorer“(Harrison, p. 3). So-called “buy local” initiatives that follow from this perspective are an almost natural reaction to a colony-like exploitation.

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey

For us, the important take away is the perception by activists and residents alike that the black ghetto can be colony-like–exploited by outsiders. Being a colony condemns the ghetto to a near-perpetual subordinate position–the persistence of the colony metaphor reinforces a separatist perspective. It also logically supports a natural desire to limit exploitation, by controlling neighborhood-level institutions themselves so one can limit control by outsiders. The Great Society community action program created an institution, the community development corporation,(CDC) whose purpose was to do just that–bring local institutions/government field offices under local control. Harrison liked the CDC believing it to be the near-perfect instrument to implement a community development “comprehensive” approach across many policy areas simultaneously so that African-American ghetto residents could seize control of their neighborhood and declare independence from the mainstream capitalist economy and American society.  In the 1970’s, control of neighborhood schools (even New York City turned control over to neighborhoods) was the institution that was targeted for neighborhood control. When combined with busing, neighborhood control of schools savagely disrupted most Big City politics.

In that atmosphere, community development bled into political development, and community organizing. This proved to be a volatile combination.

No where was this drive for neighborhood independence most visible and persistent than in controlling the police. Harrison in 1973 makes this observation: “While virtually all ghetto institutions are controlled by outsiders, none is more crucial to the colonial model than the police. Whether black or white (especially if the latter) the city-controlled police are often referred to by ghetto blacks as an ‘army of occupation’ [Eldridge Cleaver, 1969]. Current public investments in ‘crime control’  [1970’s law and order initiatives such as Rizzo’s Philadelphia] are seen to only exacerbate the problem” (Harrison, p. 5). Needless to say [but I’ll say it anyway], this line of thought may be relevant to current debate over 2015 Ferguson and Baltimore experiences.

Harrison’s final observation on the potential impact of ghetto as a colony lies in its reinforcing of the communalism or cooperation initiative called for by Du Bois. Not only does it link economic change with political control, the perspective encourages a “community” reaction to benefit the “community”. The push for individual achievement , certainly individual assimilation, would seem to be greatly lessened with this approach. Conversely, the identification of the individual ghetto resident with the overall community ,i.e. ghetto, is greatly strengthened. Neighborhood independence becomes Du Bois’s separatism.

I wonder if this, to some degree, helps explain (in addition to discrimination and normal geographic neighborhood succession, of course) why post-1980 black suburbanization into racially concentrated suburbs has not resulted in a general diffusion (assimilation) of blacks into mainstream suburbia–it may be that former black ghetto residents who suburbanize prefer to live in solidly black suburban neighborhoods–preserving the community in which they were raised and with which they identify. The link between the individual and the “community” may be too strong  to break.

In this context, it is not hard to confuse “place” with “race”. Assimilation becomes impractical, if not irrelevant.

In any case, communalism, contrasted with individualism, seems relevant as the more preferred goal for a community development strategies in ghetto economic development. Individual achievement through entrepreneurship and participation in a capitalist economy seems out of place?

Individualism and Communalism

In the writings/advocacy of these two early intellectuals/leaders, three important contrasts emerged. Du Bois rejected Washington’s assimilation-path, instead urging a separate, Negro-controlled, socialist, not capitalist economy. Secondly, Washington stressed individual self-achievement, mastering skills and creating wealth within the capitalist economy; entrepreneurism or black small business formation was the principle strategy. Du Bois, however, argued for blacks to “cooperate”, to work together to develop separately from the colonial white economy. Thirdly, Du Bois stressed that cooperation should bring benefit to the black community as a whole, not to Washington’s individual entrepreneurs. In effect, Du Bois rejected individual mobility [assimilation] in favor of a separate African-American community-wide prosperity achieved by cooperative action of its members. [Marcus Garvey also strongly advocated a black nationalist separatist path–even embracing a “return to Africa” movement]

W.E.B. duBois

W.E.B. duBois

To Harrison, Du Bois’ “communalism’ meant “Service to family, clan, community, or nation becomes more than ‘the burden of being my brother’s keeper’. Serving [the community] is motivated not be some abstract code of behavior; rather one serves others to serve oneself“. (p-4, citing Dixon/Foster, 1971, p. 10). Communalism, Harrison asserts, dominated black thought during the 1970’s because it was a deeply embedded into the American black political culture.

There is also a feeling among some that collective approaches to black economic development are both natural and inevitable, given the tradition of African communalism which American blacks have inherited. Badi Foster writes ‘Contrary to the thrust of individualism, communalism holds that self-centeredness will not provide a just social order resulting from antagonistic cooperation [supply vs demand, labor vs owner etc.]

Further he asserts citing Hampden-Turner (1969, p.83): “It has been suggested that blacks tend to reject the ‘ideology of economic individualism’ in the belief that whites in positions of economic and political power explicitly use that ideology ‘to dominate poor people and keep them competitively divided’“. (p. 4). The icing on the communalism as political culture is that Du Bois himself , asserted that his “cooperation” “represents a revival of African communalism, a ‘tradition of cooperation in the field of economic endeavor [which] is outstanding in Negro cultures everywhere‘”. (Harrison p 2, Ofari, 1970, p. 12).

Since I clearly am not in the position to affirm or deny whether communalism is a dominant value in American black political culture. I am more open to the perspective that subsequent to the Great Migration, as blacks settled into a hostile economic, political and social competition with whites in the Big Cities of the industrial North and Midwest, many blacks living in depressed neighborhoods, with unresponsive urban governments evolved culturally from values that had sustained Washington. Leaving the South for northern climes, it might be argued, fostered a ghetto community achieved through a common culture and identity–separateness. In short, one does not have to embrace communalism as a core Black cultural value–it could have developed over time in response to a hostile outside world.

To return to Harrison’s argument, however, by the end of the 1960’s, separatism and communalism increasingly dominated black neighborhood (ghetto) consciousness. That is not to say, however, that Washington’s integrationist and individualism path had been rejected. Just the opposite, it too could be found in these neighborhoods at that time, but it was a minority position that got weaker over time to be sure. At that critical time, both coexisted. Our next section recounts how Harrison saw that coexistence playing out in competing economic development strategies.

Black Capitalism and Community Economic Development: Polar Opposites?

Harrison defines “black capitalism” as “atomistic [i.e. individual-entrepreneur], business focused, and operating within conventional capitalist markets. He defines “community economic development” as “support of groups of producers or consumers acting collectively, with social benefit, and institutional change more important objectives of development than private profit [or individual success] [Harrison, p. 12].

Black capitalism works through conventional capitalist markets and black-owned companies. Harrison alleges that such firms are usually very small businesses, mostly in vulnerable personal services and retail sectors, and are store for store less profitable than non-black-owned businesses–even in the ghetto. Black capitalism seeks to change this situation and he suggests 1970’s Black Capitalism was pursuing the formation of larger Black-owned businesses that priced goods cheaper pricing with better quality through more efficient management. This strategy, adopted by most federal, state and local government programs was used to (1) address inequities associated with black entrepreneurism; (2) increase consumer welfare; and (3) provide greater political stability within the ghetto (Harrison, p. 14).

Black Capitalism

Black capitalism has been the cornerstone of most federal, state and local economic development strategies and programs. He cites SBA and OEO loan/guarantee and technical assistance  programs, contractor and procurement programs for MBE, the Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Company (MESBIC). He also singles out a major initiative of the period (the RFK Kennedy Plan) that provided traditional economic development incentives such as tax abatement to attract white-owned large corporations to locate in the ghetto. One could argue this as a forerunner to the Reagan era Economic Development Zone. In any case Harrison labels it as “branch-planting“, which is not a compliment. He cites his friend and frequent co-author, Barry Bluestone who critiques branch-planting as removing “project selection [without] … control by the community and encouraging low-wage jobs in the ghetto.

Community economic development is strongly preferred by Harrison. He endorses initiatives such as: (1) institution-building rather than increasing per capita income; (2) creation of “inside jobs” [internal to the ghetto]; (3) acquisition by the community of assets both inside and outside the ghetto; (4) a substantial expansion of existing black businesses through cooperative forms of ownership; (5) large-scale transfer of ghetto property to ghetto residents, and/or the “community qua community”; (6) provision of pre-vocational and skill training within ghetto enterprises; and (7) local control of infrastructure such as schools, police, and health facilities (Harrison, p. 13).

Harrison’s definition of community economic development is clearly linked to “place”, to “separateness”, to “communalism”–and to coin a phase invites not only controlling the ghetto, but “gilding” it in various people-oriented ways. As successful examples, he cites the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (new housing, substantial rehabilitation,  home ownership constructed by hiring unemployed ghetto young adults, and sold primarily to existing residents through mortgage pool). Also cited is Harlem Commonwealth Council which formed and built a factory, office building and formed a series of ghetto-based businesses. Other examples include modular housing factories, and the Hough Area Development Corporation that developed mixed-zoning Martin Luther King Plaza (housing, and commercial).

Manning_Marable_by_David_Shankbone--How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America

Manning_Marable_by_David_Shankbone–How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America

Harrison’s vehicle for community economic development is the community controlled and led community development corporation (CDC). This is important. CDC’s are recognized within mainstream community developers as the pillar around which external, exogenous institution or foundations can anchor their initiatives. The key to CDC success for Harrison is that “Most of the CDC’s which have enjoyed a measure of success in launching economic development projects have been able to do so by virtue of having created a solid base of political support within the community [ghetto] in order to present a strong united front to outside agencies” (Harrison, p. 18. ). Again, one sees a bleeding of community development into political development and community organizing.

 So What’s the Take Away?

Harrison suggests that:

(1) organic or endogenous initiatives/institutions in black ghettos have to incorporate economic and political goals into one strategy. They need to fuse economic development with more political goals.

(2) Separatist and communal work is at cross purposes with individualist “black capitalist” strategies. Black ownership of business  does not necessarily lead to community wealth-building? Cooperatives and nonprofits more suitable?

(3) To the extent that external initiatives are assimilative in purpose (to allow individual residents to enter society’s/the economy’s mainstream) they undermine initiatives that focus on place development to achieve neighborhood self-sufficiency and independence.

If so, I wonder if Harrison’s “separatist” place-based development” suggests a new meaning to “separate, but equal”.

At minimum, is it unlikely that we will ever see a “one size fits all” community development “model”?

Harrison passed away in 1999–prematurely. Up until that time community development ha in the main not followed Harrison’s advice.It engaged in “community-building and civic engagement”. The thrust then was to provide resources to allow individuals to connect with themselves as a community and as individuals and to establish partnerships with key institutions–especially government agencies that provided services essential to residents. Initiatives like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative were typical of that era. Community problem-solving and individual initiative and achievement were not at war with each other. There were tensions– as in the goal-conflicts that have obsessed me in my three articles–but in spite of them the two cultures of Black majority neighborhoods did coexist. At some point after the turn of the century, I think that changed.

I suspect, among other factors, identity politics that has produced alienation on steroids have changed the atmosphere. Community development, accordingly, has become more political and social change-oriented than ever before–even more than in the 1960’s.

These days community development initiatives put people first, stress equity (i.e. equality), are predicated on inclusion and diversity–and toss in sustainability to keep climate change at bay. These value-strategies link place and the individual with a”community” and “a people”. The focus has changed from capacity-building and problem-solving to individual empowerment through the collective community. The individual’s success is linked to the success of all in the community. Our earlier metaphor, the ghetto as colony is back in style–at least in the sense the residents of a community/neighborhood seek to achieve control over the institutions relevant to their lives–institutions they perceive at war with them or exploiting them.  This suggests a goal structure congruent with the Du Bois/Garvey/Malcolm X approach. With those values little pride is taken of the non-political accomplishments by successful Black capitalists such as Oprah Winfrey. That may also be true of individual political achievements of individuals like Barack Obama. Rather semi-political cultural and community movements such as “Black Lives Matter” seem to better express the dominant tenor today.

Assimilation is without value; what is valued is a “community liberation”.

Is this community development today in African-American neighborhoods?

Controlling the “anchor” institutions of a community is one thing–operating them to the satisfaction of the community is quite another. At some point “community control” and “community wealth-building” bleeds into neighborhood self-government or some sort of “socialist enterprise zones”. At some point community development becomes community organizing. If so the colony becomes self-governing–separate from other governments. What has “place” become in that context? Is it confined to the neighborhood? The City? American Society, Economy and Politics? How does inclusion combined with a separatist place yield to a coherent strategy? It seems more compatible with a Maoist cultural revolutionary struggle than a community development strategy.

If this is anything like what is happening out there than politically correct words enforced by media, ambiguous value priorities,  and “high-falootin” many-lettered, if well-meaning jargon obscure and befuddle some terrifically conflicting goals present in today’s discussion and community development initiatives. Has community development moved into community organizing?  A lack of clarity potentially allows, maybe requires, community developer initiatives in these conflicted neighborhoods and cities  to proceed down some rather controversial and divisive paths that invite reaction and maybe violence. Expectations built around high morals, big words, and great social reform principles may be impossible to satisfy without, almost revolutionary, social reform that is sure to produce a counter-reaction.

That is a world far apart from community-building and community wealth-building, both of which can be compatible with a degree of assimilation for those who choose that path.

My preference is assimilation, I make no secret of that. Harrison’s is ghetto development/gilding.

In this one can see the dilemma that I discussed in my two previous issues. Which is it? Assimilation or Separatist-leaning Social Change through community organizing?

Great Migration1910 to 1970-UrbanPopulation


This is another worthy historical summation of African American experience in addressing socioeconomic challenges, primarily from the northeastern U.S., & largely from a political perspective. Thank you for that . . .

I love political perspectives, however, when it comes to a CED perspective, who are the knowledgeable & experienced CED practitioners in the field? Why don’t we ever get to know any African American CED professionals in our field? I’m interested in their opinion.

We don’t need to restrict ourselves to political lens when it comes to raising standards of living & quality of life outcomes — what does scholarship & experience say? This approach should become the backbone in the way we take on structural socioeconomic issues in any community, while putting political personalities & events on the sidelines.

Let’s also confront, head on, the racial barriers put up by the usual miscreants, politicized by the right wing of the Republican party, such as it is. Why not feature African American (and other ethnic groups) CED practitioners or scholars on this site? We need their voices added to this discussion. Thanks.

Comment by Fernando Centeno on December 10, 2015 at 1:22 pm

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