- Now is the Time! Detroit Black Politics and Grassroots Activism by Todd C. Shaw
There has been no shortage of scholarly and popular attention paid to Detroit in recent years. The city is frequently referred to in war-like terms as scholars, journalists and pundits pontificate about the urban crisis, white flight and segregation, criminality, Black political power, the current recession, and the pitfalls of industrial capitalism. Until recently, Time magazine “embedded” reporters within the city. These travel journalists wrote a number of articles about the desolation, mismanagement, and economic crises that the city has come to symbolize. In true missionary fashion, these same writers have also held out hope for the Motor City, painting it as a potential urban Phoenix ready to rise from the ashes through the actions and investments of concerned white investors and arty white bohemians. Black Detroit—once the subject of scholarly and popular attention precisely because of its high level of working-class organization, activism and militancy—has been largely ignored over the last thirty years as writers have opted to make its residents the victims of history rather than its subjects.
Todd C. Shaw’s Now is the Time!: Detroit Black Politics and Grassroots Activism provides an important corrective to those who argue that Detroit’s black grassroots organizing tradition died with the auto industry and/or the election of Coleman A. Young. Focused on one of Detroit’s central ironies—the lack of quality low-income housing in a city with among the highest vacancy rates in the nation—Shaw’s book is primarily a study of grassroots housing struggles and community development activism during the Young administration, but also details earlier and later campaigns to secure tenants’ rights in the private and public rental markets, “maximum feasible participation” in urban renewal planning and implementation, and later, in the design and programming of Hope VI projects during the 1990s. Shaw focuses primarily on housing, but looks at a variety of constituent groups and their particular activist cycles to better understand “the creativity of black grassroots activism in the post-Civil Rights Movement era” while also analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each campaign.
Blending and building upon the latest trends in social movement analysis and political science, Shaw effectively explores the lessons than can be culled through these movements by presenting a model, the Effective Black Activism Model (EBAM), in which he argues that “[c]ontemporary black grassroots activism and [End Page 214] protest in majority-black cities such as Detroit can at least modestly induce black and other public officials to be accountable to black and other low-income communities when activists imaginatively use the right tactic (utility), at the right time (timing), in the right place (context)…and that strong allies, strategic advantages, and adaptive tactics (my triple As) are essential ingredients of successful grassroots activism, often as supplemented by expansive group identities, attractive goal framing, and necessary organizational resources” (191).
Shaw’s ability to examine various protest organizations, analyze their strengths and weaknesses, highlight the primary roles played by black women, and to compare and contrast the contexts and tactics employed in each movement is masterful. His coverage of the primacy of protest tactics in public housing organizing as opposed to the less confrontational political approach that guided the community development organization, Save Our Spirit, for example, is particularly strong. As with the other case studies that Shaw presents, he effectively refutes the false dichotomy of protest vs. politics by showing that the two were never mutually exclusive.
There are few weaknesses in the book, and they are minor. Readers without a political science background may find the language of the EBAM a bit tedious, but this is only because Shaw’s narrative and synthetic treatments of Detroit’s history are so sound. Readers may also clamor for more information regarding the community activists that Shaw introduces, or for a better understanding of the ways in which capitalists and outside investors helped shape development, housing policy, and the successes or failures of particular campaigns. These minor...