03 Jul Banlieues and Bantustans
We did not intend to post anything today but changed our mind. The violence in France reminded us of a piece we wrote a few years ago (while we were writing The Dictatorship of Woke Capital) about the risks associated with public policies that isolate and humiliate minority populations. We don’t want to suggest that the largely Muslim rioters in France today are the good guys, but we do think it is worth noting that France has, in many ways, courted this type of violence through its ethnic/urban policy.
Additionally, when we decided to repost this story, we thought that we would only post the first half, given that the second half slides into our criticism of the failed American urban policies that were on full display during the George Floyd riots. And as you may (or may not) recall, we got a bit out over our proverbial skis in our predictions about what all of that meant for the future of America’s biggest cities. But again, we changed our mind. What is happening at scale in San Francisco and to a lesser but noticeable extent in other cities is a reminder that good intentions don’t necessarily translate into good policy. The “compassion” inherent the policies designed to “help” to help the most vulnerable in America’s cities is admirable, but it often results in serious and irreparable damage.
Happy Independence Day to all of you. Stay safe. See you Wednesday.
A reprint of a piece published June 2, 2020:
Minneapolis, Detroit, and “the 93.”
So, as we’ve noted, several times over the past few weeks, we’ve been doing some extra reading of late on the origins of the “socially responsible investments” movement. And since the movement really started to mature into a financial and political force in the 1980s, with the South African divestment drive, we’ve also been doing some extra reading on apartheid-era South Africa. As is our wont – both when we write and when we read – we got quite some distance into the weeds before we stopped to get back to the task at hand. Among other things we spent time reading and thinking about was the South African “homeland” or “Bantustan” system.
Two of the most significant and far-reaching acts of the Afrikaner National Party, the party of the Afrikaner white minority and the architect of apartheid, were the 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act and the 1970 Bantu Homeland Citizenship Act. Both of these were presented to the world as magnanimous acts on the part of the National Party to give the country’s black population its own lands and a chance at political independence. In truth, of course, the Bantustans (literally “people places”) were the apartheid regime’s attempt to rid the white areas of the country of the black “surplus population” and to deprive them of their citizenship, in the process, thereby eliminating any claims they might someday make against their stolen property.
Black South Africans were divided up along rudimentary ethnic and linguistic lines and were then sent to the “homeland” that had been designated for their group. And when we say “sent,” we mean that they were told to go, were given no choice in the matter, regardless of their connection to the land, and then were physically forced to move. In 1970. Once in their new Bantustan, the people were told that they were now no longer citizens of South Africa but were, instead, citizens of their “homeland,” which would be treated by the National Party regime as a “foreign” polity. In their generosity, the Afrikaners (that is to say the descendants of the 18th and 19th-century Dutch settlers), gave their black “former” countrymen 13% of the country’s absolutely most craptastical land – even though blacks constituted 75% of the population, and the country is among the most blessed by God in terms of beauty and natural resources. Strangely, all the gold and the uranium and the rest of those resources just happened to be located “white South Africa.” Fancy that.
Anyway, the Bantustans served several purposes for the apartheid regime, but most significantly it kept the black people where the government could keep an eye on them. Since they were all “independent” polities, it was forbidden to travel from one to the next or from one to white South Africa. One could apply for travel papers, of course, or a work permit, but without those two documents, the black South Africans were expected to be in their dry, dirty, overcrowded, under-resourced, crime-ridden, corrupt “homelands.” The infamous Sharpeville Massacre – in which 69 people were killed and 180 injured when white police opened fire on a rioting crowd – started as a protest against the “pass laws,” the name given to the system of internal passports, etc. that were intended to keep the country’s black people on their homelands.
The pass laws, the internal passports, the Bantustans, and all the other trappings of the apartheid regime disappeared in 1994, when power was transferred to the democratically elected Mandela administration.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the idea of keeping poor, frustrated minorities isolated and secluded in specific geographical districts has also disappeared. The infamous banlieue in urban/suburban France are, in some ways, the offspring of the Bantustans. The parallel isn’t perfect, obviously, but there are enough similarities that it’s worth mentioning.
Banlieue, is a generic term, indicating any suburb of any of France’s major cities. But it’s also a term that has been used more and more over the past couple of decades derogatorily, a term intended to convey the ugliness, poverty, and despair of the mostly-African, mostly-Muslim suburbs of Paris. These places have largely been forgotten by the Parisian cosmopolitans – or at least they’ve been mostly forgotten, springing to mind only when their residents riot or commit acts of terror. The banlieue are where the French keep their undesirables, their surplus population, the people whom they don’t want to think about but would nevertheless like to keep an eye on. The banlieue are the places the French keep around because their minorities exist and, as Spike Milligan noted, everybody has to be somewhere.
For the last five years, ever since the terror attacks at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, American journalists have flocked to the banlieue to tell the “real story.” Their real goal, of course, is to prove Fox News wrong about the banlieue being “no-go zones,” but they actually prove something else altogether, that France is a pretty screwed-up country. One such profile, an interminably long essay written by The New Yorker’s George Packer, gives a good feel of the conditions:
Ben Ahmed, who is thirty-nine, works as a liaison between residents and the local government in Bondy—a suburb, northeast of Paris, in an area called Department 93. For decades a bastion of the old working class and the Communist Party, the 93 is now known for its residents of Arab and African origin. To many Parisians, the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation. The cités and their occupants are the subject of anxious and angry discussion in France. Two recent books by the eminent political scientist Gilles Kepel, “Banlieue de la République” and “Quatre-vingt-treize” (“Ninety-three”), are studies in industrial decline and growing segregation by group identity. There’s a French pejorative for that, too: communautarisme….
The highway that encircles Paris is known as the Périphérique. Entering or leaving the suburbs is often called “crossing the Périphérique,” as if it were a frontier. Banlieue residents joke that going into Paris requires a visa and a vaccination card. Mehdi Meklat, a young writer at Bondy Blog, which reports on the banlieues, told me, “There are two parallel worlds.” He called the dynamic between Paris and the suburbs “schizophrenic.”
The R.E.R., the rail network linking Paris to its suburbs, takes you from the Gare du Nord to Ben Ahmed’s station in just nineteen minutes. The trip begins in a tunnel, and when the train emerges the boulevards lined with bistro awnings are gone. Even the weather seems different—damp and murky, with a wind blowing from the southwest. (The suburbs of the 93 grew around factories that had been situated northeast of Paris in order to allow industrial smells to drift away from the City of Light.) The rail tracks cut through a disordered landscape of graffiti-covered walls, glass office buildings, soccer fields, trash fires, abandoned industrial lots, modest houses with red tile roofs, and clusters of twenty-story monoliths—the cités….
For all their vitality, the banlieues feel isolated from the city, and from France itself. Parisians and tourists rarely visit them, and residents complain that journalists drop in only to report on car burnings and drug shootings. The suburb Clichy-sous-Bois—the scene, in 2005, of youth riots that spread across the country—has tried to raise revenue by offering a tour de banlieue for curious outsiders. Many suburban residents, meanwhile, never even think of going to Paris. Compared with American slums, the banlieues have relatively decent standards of housing and safety, but the psychological distance between the 93 and the Champs-Elysées can feel insuperable—much greater than that between the Bronx and Times Square. The apartment blocks in the cités, often arranged around a pharmacy, a convenience store, and a fast-food joint, look inward. Many have no street addresses, obvious points of entry, or places to park. The sense of separation is heightened by the names of the surrounding streets and schools, preserved from a historical France that has little connection to residents’ lives. The roads around Gros Saule—a drug-ridden cité where the police dare not enter—include Rue Henri Matisse and Rue Claude Debussy….
Andrew Hussey, a British scholar at the University of London School of Advanced Study in Paris, believes that the turmoil in the banlieues—periodic riots, car burnings, brawls with cops—is one more front in the long war between France and its Arabs, especially Algerians. The aim of the violence isn’t reform or revolution but revenge. “The kids in the banlieues live in this perpetual present of weed, girls, gangsters, Islam,” he said. “They have no sense of history, no sense of where they come from in North Africa, other than localized bits of Arabic that they don’t understand, bits of Islam that don’t really make sense.”
Hussey’s recent book, “The French Intifada,” describes the conflict in such dire terms that his French publisher refused to release a translation. His banlieue research is less nuanced than that of Kepel (the phrase “French intifada” drew laughs of disbelief when I mentioned it to some banlieue residents), but it’s vivid and firsthand. The book opens with an eyewitness account of an eight-hour battle, in the Gare du Nord in 2007, between cops and banlieue kids who shout, in Arabic, “Fuck France!” Hussey writes, “This slogan—it is in fact more of a curse—has nothing to do with any French tradition of revolt.”
Normally, we’d tell you to “read the whole thing,” and it’s here, if you want to. But goodness, Mr. Packer does go on.
Anyway, speaking of people who do go on, we DO have a point here. The politicians who are letting their cities burn to spite Donald Trump, and the media celebrities who are celebrating the burning to spite Donald Trump, and the spoiled, bored white kids from Thus-and-Such Country Day School who are driving to the cities with bricks, and pavers, and whatever else they can find to spite Donald Trump, are ALL playing an exceptionally shallow, transparent, but dangerous game.
Here’s the deal: right now, most cities simply do not spend what is necessary to maintain, train, and monitor a police force of adequate size to do the job that is asked of them (roughly 2.5 officers per 1000 residents). Given that, urban leaders have three options: 1. They can muddle through with the status quo. 2. They can find the money to pay for what they want, which will be expensive and will mean raising sales and property taxes, encouraging business development, and ending the practice of using TAXPAYER funds to build stupid things like arenas and stadiums to keep or attract sports teams. Or 3. They can reassess what they ask their police to do.
To make matters worse, the COVID pandemic has limited their choices. Not only are cities like Minneapolis now facing more than $100 million revenue shortfalls, but the people who would or could be inclined to pay the taxes necessary to make up for those shortfalls are going to be looking to get the hell out of Dodge. As we noted a few weeks back:
It’s far too early to tell how the Great COVID Pandemic of 2020 will affect how we, as a people and a culture, live. Still, it’s worth noting that in New York, they call staying far away from people, minding your own business, keeping to yourself, and not getting in anyone’s personal space “flattening the curve through social distancing.” In Nebraska, we call it Tuesday. Or any of the other days that end in “y.”
Add in the fact that no one in a position of authority wants the current riots to end because they think they’re bad for Trump, and you have the makings of urban flight the likes of which this country has never seen – or, at the very least, hasn’t seen in 50 or 60 years. As Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at the New York Post and a columnist for First Things put it yesterday, as he watched New York burn and watched its mayor pick his earwax, “I gotta tell you, living in Manhattan, upscale red-state suburbs/exurbs are looking real attractive right now. And I could own a freakin’ seven-room house for the price of my two-bed apartment!”
And what happens when everyone who can afford to leaves Minneapolis for Edina, Dellwood, and Minnetonka Beach? It would probably be unfair to suggest that Minneapolis will turn into “the 93,” but “Detroit” is not outside the realm of possibility. If the people who can leave the cities DO leave the cities, then the cities lose a significant portion of their tax base, and when they lose a significant portion of their tax base, they “choose” Option #3 above by DEFAULT. And then it becomes a vicious circle. No tax base means no money to pay for police which means more crime which causes more people to flee the city which causes further deterioration of the tax base which…well, you get the picture.
Detroit is a case study in what happens to poor and minority populations when cities collapse. In 1950, Detroit was the wealthiest urban area in the WORLD. It had 1.8 million residents and was the 5th biggest city in the country. Detroit was also 85% white in 1950. By 2010, it was the poorest metro region in the United States. Its population had fallen under 700,000, putting it outside the 20 biggest cities in the country for the first time in 150 years. And it was 83% black, 1% Asian, and 7% Hispanic, meaning that it was 91+% minority. From 1950 to 2010, while the population of the city was cut by almost two-thirds, the total black population in the city DOUBLED – because black people, more than any others in Detroit, couldn’t afford to leave. What that means is that the white flight from the city not only killed Detroit, it also ensured that the burden of its collapse fell disproportionally on black Americans, who were trapped by their poverty and then trapped by the vicious circle of urban collapse. Again, calling that a banlieue or a Bantustan may be exaggerating the point – BUT ONLY SLIGHTLY.
What happened to Detroit was not preventable. The city’s racist housing laws contributed to its collapse, but mostly, that collapse was the product of a changing global economy.
If it happens again, however, if the confluence of circumstances this spring and summer pushes a new round of urban flight, it will not be pure happenstance. It will be because of deliberate and purposefully executed policies and political and media campaigns that were motivated almost exclusively by white progressives who thought they could or should use the cities and their residents to try “get” Donald Trump.
That’s tragic, but not just tragic. It’s also evil.