Audrey McFarlane, Guest Blogger: Retracing My Thoughts on Class, Race and Development Part I

This is my first post on the Class Crit Blog.  My work on class has been both about class as a hidden but legally murky form of identity as well as class as a marker of station-in-life to be transcended (ie mobility).  But of course, class is a relative form of identity: it depends on how well or how poorly others are doing.  It depends on access to material goods as compared to others.  It’s meaning also depends on access to political decision-making power as well.   Class also depends on the allocation of subordination and privilege within a society.  I thought my first step would be to review some of my work that has touched on class.  I have focused on the conflicting uses and role of class in the development process and through development the inscription of race and class on our urban geographical landscape.  I view class in development as reinforcing the work that race does which is to identify and locate The Other: to create a map of places of belonging and places to be avoided (particularly places that are racialized Black and classified poor).  Thus the absence or selective presence of people of a particular race and class can be used as a marketing tool to sell residential neighborhoods and commercial retail opportunities.

Initially, my work focused on the use of race and class to justify expenditures on something loosely referred to as “economic development”: ie development is predicated on jobs.  For example, over ten years ago, in an article entitled “Race, Space and Place: The Geography of Economic Development”  I commented on the then-much-heralded Empowerment Zones (EZ) program as practicing a misleading “job essentialism.”  Jobs are essential but economic development exploits and manipulates the concern for jobs for the poor to justify any and all expenditures or actions under the justification of “economic development.”   I questioned the wisdom of the  EZ approach of picking an impoverished geographical area and attempting to offer weak bribes to companies to operate a new company or branch of an existing company in that area:

The wisdom of this approach is questionable for a number of reasons. First, the reality of the relationship between jobs and economic development is somewhat counterintuitive: economic development is not synonymous with employment development. Instead, economic development is a process designed primarily, if not exclusively, to meet the needs of business elites by encouraging capital investment in particular geographic areas through incentives.   Jobs of a particular type, quantity, or duration are not guaranteed and, in fact, are simply a possible secondary outcome and concern.  The quality jobs produced in most economic development projects often come from firms that require highly skilled primary sector employees and are thus relevant to only highly educated or trained people.  More typically, the jobs found in the typical convention center, sports stadium, or festival‑ marketplace are low‑skilled, service jobs that pay relatively low wages, insufficient to support a family.  ****

Because the Empowerment Zones approach conceives of the problems of the poor ghetto neighborhoods and residents as a problem of jobs, it does the communities a disservice by ignoring economic development’s dubious job‑creating capacity and it simply misunderstands the oppression of geographic space racialized black and classified poor.  In other words, it disregards the real problem ‑‑ the subordinating structure of relations between elite and marginalized communities within cities. ****

The exclusive focus on jobs as the essential factor missing from poor inner‑city communities suggests that a lack of jobs is the only problem experienced by poor neighborhoods that should be addressed.  When there is a hunger and unmet need for employment, all critical examination of economic development as a sensible investment of public resources becomes impossible. In particular, the extent to which economic development meets the needs of private business firms for capital investment while, at the same time, imparting a less than satisfactory benefit to inner‑city residents must be critically examined

I have omitted footnotes and citations. To read the full article go to

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One Response to Audrey McFarlane, Guest Blogger: Retracing My Thoughts on Class, Race and Development Part I

  1. Donna Coker says:

    I would add that the hollowing out of neighborhoods and the weakening of social bonds that is the product of mass incarceration/ the “War on Drugs” makes a focus on “jobs” further problematic. When a significant percentage of the population in a community is unable to overcome anti-felon stigma to get a job or licensing laws that render them ineligible for certain jobs, creating new jobs doesn’t change the landscape enough to be meaningful.

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