The Selective, Subjective Studies of a Sociology Professor

by Patrick Seaworth - Ohio State University on April 23, 2013

That you’ve never heard about how President Barack Obama represented a slumlord who evicted poor people in the dead of winter from low-income housing in Chicago during his stint as a “civil rights” lawyer in Chicago in the 1990s is understandable; that morsel from Obama’s past only surfaced in news reports last summer.

But how does that story escape the attention of a sociology professor from Northwestern University whose primary focus for a decade was the study of race, class and gentrification in America – and in particular – within the city of Chicago?

Professor Mary Pattillo’s recent hour-long presentation at Ohio State University was titled “Race, Class and Gentrification in America,” during which she talked a lot about the Chicago-based North Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood, “a predominantly black area that was one of the poorest in the city in the 1980s, but now is a place with million dollar homes, a new park, and an upscale coffee shop,” the university’s website stated in advertising the guest lecture.

“Why do some neighborhoods go from being ignored and starved of resources to being ‘prime real estate’ and the targets of redevelopment,” organizers asked in touting her visit.

As Pattillo gave her speech at Ohio State’s African-American Community Extension Center, presenting her decade-long study of gentrification – the purported process of relocating poor (read minority) tenants out of low-income housing, to the benefit of (you guessed it) wealthy, white developers – she never mentioned our president’s name, that great civil rights lawyer, nor the various slumlord developers he represented as a lawyer in Chicago against the interest of these very people she claimed are being taking advantage of by wealthy whites, who by the way are also racially motivated.

Her speech was based on her 2008 book titled Black on the Block, described on Amazon as the exploration of “the often heated battles between haves and have-nots, home owners and apartment dwellers, and newcomers and old-timers as they clash over the social implications of gentrification.”

“Along the way, Pattillo highlights the conflicted but crucial role that middle-class blacks play in transforming such districts as they negotiate between established centers of white economic and political power and the needs of their less fortunate black neighbors.”

That’s one way of looking at it. But after her lecture, Pattillo was asked point blank by The College Fix about Obama’s tenure in Chicago as a slumlord defender. Nope, sorry. She said she hadn’t heard that one.

In particular, Pattillo also said she hadn’t heard of one Chicago case, that of Bishop Arthur Brazier, a Chicago political force and preacher, a Man of God, a black man, who in the mid-1990s evicted his tenants during winter temperatures that dropped below zero, and who was defended by our President, Barack Obama.

In his 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father, Obama recalls this time a bit differently. He was a “civil rights lawyer … to lend meaning to a community suffering and (to) take part in its healing.” According to the Washington Examiner, however, most of Obama’s clients from this time “were in real estate, construction and finance.”

Which brings us back to gentrification.

In 1994, Obama chaired the defense of Bishop Brazier, described by some as a South Chicago Slumlord.

“Brazier’s… had failed for nearly a month to supply heat and running water for the complex’s 15 crumbling apartments,” reported the Washington Examiner last September. “On Jan. 18, 1994, the day the heat went off, Chicago’s official high temperature was 11 below zero, the day after it was 19 below. Even worse, the residents were then ordered to leave the WPIC complex in the winter chill without the due process they would have been afforded by an eviction procedure.”

Even Chicago’s city government was upset by this (which is saying something), explicating: “The levying of a fine is not an adequate remedy.”

But our president was so adept at his defense, that Bishop Brazier paid only a $50 fine. This property then became a profitable real estate venture for profit-driven men.

The story represents the typical horror portrait painted by individuals who claim these crimes are committed only by white men. Yet it wasn’t white people that evicted these poor families, it was a black man, defended by a black lawyer.

Now, this perception of racist gentrification is so well covered within Chicago, it even makes an appearance in the lyrics of Patrick Stump’s “This City” – a popular pop song describing the artist’s love for Chicago:

“Sorry my brother can’t let you in, ‘cause the property value might go down to a level that’s economically unacceptable, and socially taboo for us to live around you… Actually mine’s just a fair education and gentrification, despite all the above, I love my city.”

This is to say, the youth of Chicago grow up with the ingrained belief that wealthy white developers wish to move them out of low-income housing, so that whites can live there cheaply, by stealing their property, with complete disregard for individuals of different skin tones.

Yet, the very lead of this discussion within Chicago itself, a distinguished Northwestern professor – the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies – said she could not recall any of our president’s time as a lawyer representing these wealthy developers.  Nor even recall this case, although she said she does know of Bishop Brazier.

A curious condition, given this is the region in which Pattillo lectures, and has spent most of her adult life combing through decades of these horrendous acts of racially motivated victimization.

The point here being, that if one is so concerned with the belief that individuals of certain skin tones are being evicted in order to make room for wealthy individuals of a different skin tone, we, as students, can rightly demand that the speaker holds all parties accountable for these racist acts, or that she begin to view her work from a new mindset, and not the one that furthered her agenda, here at the cost of the OSU student.

Perhaps that is asking too much of the academic left, and expecting too much as to where and upon whom our tuition and fees are spent.

Fix contributor Patrick Seaworth is a student at Ohio State University.

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