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Unmasking Racial Capitalism’s Public Face


John N. Robinson III is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Princeton University.

This post continues a joint symposium with our comrades at Just Money on Destin Jenkins’s The Bonds of Inequality. Expect new posts in this series to appear on Thursdays throughout the fall.


Like many of us in recent times, political theorist Bonnie Honig laments “the contemporary impulse to privatize everything” in her latest book. Against that, Honig mounts a forceful defense of “public things,” acknowledging that “many of us can now only experience [them] with ambivalence, at best.” But without them, Honig argues, “democratic life is not just impoverished but unsustainable.” That stirring appeal now comes to mind for a few reasons. 

On the one hand, advocates and politicians in the United States increasingly demand something unthinkable even a decade ago: millions of new public housing units. Few policies more exude what Honig calls “public thing-ness” than public housing, a safety net provision in which the federal government directly finances, produces, and owns the projects and buildings. And more public housing seems like a no-brainer in a society like ours, where capitalism has gone off the rails; where the market annually produces millions fewer homes for low-income people than there are individuals and families that need them. That’s why racial and economic justice activists have been sounding that call for quite some time

On the other hand, Honig’s work also weighed on me as I finished up Destin Jenkins’ brilliant and pathbreaking new book, The Bonds of Inequality. I came away from it haunted by questions nearly inverse to those raised by Honig. Questions like: What are we really defending when we place our hope in “public things”? Are those things too bound up with capitalism’s bottom line to meaningfully protect us from it? If so, could our hope in them as a lever for progressive politics be misplaced? Bonds prompted these questions for me because it demonstrates, in lurid detail, that financial sector profiteers have long infiltrated some of American society’s most public things, contaminating them from within. And that includes public housing. 

Bonds exposes the links between municipal finance and urban inequality in a way that feels rich, colorful, sobering, and expansive. There’s too much packed in there for an essay like this to do it justice. I focus here on Jenkins’ intricate and counter-intuitive analysis of public housing. But it’s worth appreciating first the book’s powerful larger argument. It’s written against other urban historical studies, which tend to latch onto narratives that center on the “failure” of federal policies and corresponding “decline” of many American cities. These accounts, as Jenkins correctly notes, can inadvertently play into the hands of elite interests lobbying tirelessly to “privatize everything,” absolving them of blame for their role in perpetuating the structural harms that still inflict marginalized communities today. 

The genius of Bonds is its insistence on carefully demonstrating that “federal failure is also the bankers’ story.” In other words, this account pins blame for that failure on a previously overlooked culprit: the “municipal technocrats and creditors” who manage and oversee the bond market. That market allows commercial banks and other institutional investors to purchase municipal debt, providing much-needed capital to cities and financing infrastructure basic to daily life. The bond market’s cast of characters includes “city controllers and accountants, bondholders and lenders, bond financiers and the peddlers of debt, and credit analysts and bond raters.” The book’s findings reveal that this “fraternity” of co-professionals has, at every turn, outmatched public officials and coopted democracy for financial gain. More broadly, Jenkins argues forcefully that this sector operates as an “engine of […] racial capitalism,” and “racial capital accumulation.” Jenkins resists any urge to frame this story as another tale of “neoliberalism,” “financialization” or other similar lingo for describing recent large-scale shifts. He emphasizes instead the durability of this status quo—its deeply entrenched quality—across historical time. The book clearly shows that the municipal bond sector’s hold on cities has grown only more toxic and suffocating as prolonged fiscal distress has become the default setting of American politics. But still, the financial sector exploitation of “public things” is not a bug here, but a feature—a staple feature of racialized capitalism.  

In Chapter Four, Jenkins narrows his focus to the municipal bond sector’s involvement in public housing and urban renewal. For both urbanists and casual readers, it is well-known that urban renewal marked an era of massive displacement and dislocation for low-income black families, especially renters. The same urban renewal policies that demolished many communities of color, clearing the way for downtown revitalization, also facilitated the relocation of those displaced into racially concentrated high-rise public housing projects. Jenkins’ contribution here is the insightfully precise way that he traces how this massive upheaval redistributed capital among different segments of people with stakes in the housing business. Of course, no one fared anywhere near as badly as the renters displaced from their homes, left to confront hazy relocation plans and uncertain futures. But urban renewal put many “little c” property interests like petty slumlords out of business. It pushed the “middle c” real estate developers and speculators into the business of “negro removal,” to clear residential space for “the kinds of white people deemed essential to the city’s survival.” Most importantly for the book, urban renewal privileged “big c” institutional capital above all else, especially the municipal bond sector. For the latter, public housing counted as one of its most pivotal assets, as commercial banks invested heavily in the debt attached to these projects. 

It’s worth pausing here to consider the deeper implications of this finding, especially its relevance to our concerns about “public things.” Although Honig purposefully construes that phrase in the broadest possible way, she places emphasis on “those things that are provided by the state and secured by its sovereignty.” Hence, the state figures centrally for Honig as a “democratic political resource,” in part because of its taken-for-granted stewardship over public things, especially things like “infrastructure […] sewage treatment plants, power and transportation systems, and the like.” Bonds covers much of the same territory. It, too, is a book about the state and its administration of public things. Ironically, it highlights the municipal bond sector’s investment into many of the same kinds of infrastructural needs. 

But public housing warrants special attention. For many, that program epitomizes state-led decommodification of social goods. Early 20th century activist Catherine Bauer, who spearheaded the US program, famously warned that good, affordable housing would not emerge as “a ‘normal’ product of a capitalist society.” She called for policies that would foster “long-time public investment” in housing, and treat it more like a “public utility” than a “speculative business.” In part because the public housing program, once enacted, seemed to actually reflect those values, racial and economic justice movements have consistently waged battles to defend, rehabilitate and expand it. That’s the lesson of historian Rhonda William’s account of low-income black women activist groups fighting to improve conditions within Baltimore’s public housing system. In what amounted to “another phase of the black freedom struggle,” these women mobilized to “place pressure on the welfare state to make good on its promise of provision and social rights, especially for some of its most marginalized citizens.” Meanwhile, right-wing agents have continually lambasted the program as a dysfunctional, “socialist,” and un-American scam, and mobilized to keep it small and poorly-funded.

Against this backdrop, it is jarring to read Jenkins’ account of how bond financiers sought out public housing debt as an “outlet for institutional capital”; how they used it to monetize “the city’s most devalued lands,” and “redlined neighborhoods.” The political theatre of bond finance meant that bankers used instruments that “laundered” public housing debt of its “connections to specific projects” and “collapsed” it into “commensurate commodities backed by government guarantees.” In other words, the same qualities that “insulated” bonds from popular input and democratic oversight, also muted some of the usual racial theatrics around public housing. As sociologist Sarah Quinn astutely observes, officials often relish the “political lightness” of policies that incorporate bond finance, which allows them to govern economic affairs in ways that minimize conflict and avoid the appearance of open redistribution. But it seems that the bond financiers reaped more from this arrangement than did the welfare state, as they exploited the state’s capacity to administer public housing in the first place, to hold bond votes, guarantee bonds, collect debt, exempt taxation, etc. Bonds especially makes clear the highly uneven terms of these investments for vulnerable tenants. For example, unlike the debt attached to urban renewal properties, the short-term notes issued to sell public housing debt lacked interest rate restrictions, so the bankers could increase those rates as much as they wanted, and often on a month-to-month basis. Likewise, especially as interest rates shot up, the guarantees afforded by officials to bankers meant that any funds generated for public housing went first toward servicing debt purchased by bondholders. As the bankers cleaned up, the public housing authorities, responsible for maintenance and upkeep, were “bled dry.” The result was a travesty in which “black and brown public housing tenants ranked much lower in budgetary priorities,” and saw big declines “in investment in the places they called home.”

Jenkins’ analysis here empirically fleshes out the ideas of thinkers who have deeply influenced contemporary discussions of “racial capitalism,” like Cedric Robinson and Charles Mills. These thinkers viewed the state as a bureaucratic façade that disguised white supremacy and its deep investments in exploiting black and brown people. At the same time, they argued, that façade also sustains what Jenkins calls a “racial welfare state” committed “to deliver[ing] white rights through government guarantees.” In public housing, as in their parallel investments in roads, sewage pipes and other infrastructural needs, bankers realized that embedding themselves within the state’s administration of “public things” provides effective cover for their quest to expand profit margins and discover new money-making opportunities—arguably more so than the “neoliberal” or “growth” narratives that get more attention. This is racial capitalism’s public face. Bonds performs the important work of unmasking it. 

Readers might finish this book and think to themselves how terrible it was that officials eventually opened up public housing to the kind of speculative activities detailed in this book—that they sabotaged a well-meaning program. But they should check out the first public housing projects ever built in the United States, aptly named “the First Houses” in New York City. They should see how the news media celebrated it as the “first land purchase […] financed by the city housing authority issuing bonds and mortgages of its own [and], the first ever by a local housing authority in America.” They should revisit public housing’s originating legislation, which specifies that “obligations issued by a public housing agency in connection with low-income housing projects [bear] the full faith and credit of the United States [and] shall be exempt from all taxation.” They should observe how that legislation prompted top municipal bond sector lobbyists in the 1930s to predict that public housing would soon become the “best investment people in this country can make on a low-return bond.” Like these historical traces, Jenkins’ book reveals that “public housing” as we typically imagine it—as arguably our most public thing—maybe never actually existed. It always aided financial sector accumulation by design. That same design has secretly empowered financiers to pillage the homes and communities of public housing tenants over many decades. By telling this story, Bonds lays bare an uneasy truth: public things, while they remain necessary to “democratic life and subjectivity,” are also essential to the maintenance of capitalism and its racial and economic hierarchies. Public things are crucial to staging the political theatre that continually obscures and misdirects, keeping those hierarchies durably in place. What is the solution to a problem like that? What sort of progressive politics are imaginable if we acknowledged that reality head on? What new language might we cultivate to better speak to the values we see as worth defending and the future we regard as worth envisioning? I don’t claim to possess good answers to these questions. You may not either. But the enduring power of this book is that, after reading it, you may find yourself haunted by these questions anyway. As I did.