An interview with Jason Hackworth, author of Manufacturing Decline

By Annie Howard

For the past several decades—and especially in the wake of the Great Recession—a steady drumbeat of negative attention has been placed upon cities in the Midwest. Many politicians and commentators, often conservative, have held up cities like Detroit and Flint, Michigan as examples of the consequences of liberal policymaking, suggesting that their failures prove that progressive interventions are unworkable at best, and actively harmful at worst. Some of these thinkers have called for the wholesale demolition of many communities in struggling cities instead, suggesting that a ‘planned shrinkage’ is the only way for many Midwest cities to be reborn.

That’s the argument of a new book by Jason Hackworth, a professor of planning and geography at the University of Toronto. In Manufacturing Decline: How Racism and the Conservative Movement Crush the American Rust Belt, Hackworth argues that conservatives (and some liberals) have linked arguments about the economic vitality of Rust Belt cities to an image of these places as overwhelmingly African-American, in the process offering coded and not-so-coded racist arguments about their deserved fate. These configurations, in turn, inform public policy. In other words, Hackworth’s book represents an exploration of how racism shapes decline and revitalization in Rust Belt communities.

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I recently spoke with Hackworth, who was born in Columbus, Ohio and grew up in a rural area near the city. (The interview that follows has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.) In our conversation, he argued that the negative cycle of Rust Belt coverage has made it incredibly difficult for many policymakers to imagine a future for the Midwest as it stands today. “Many [policymakers] don’t live in or, frankly, care about these cities,” Hackworth said, considering them simply problems to be dealt with. “Particularly places like Detroit,” he continued. “They don’t care about details, and they think it would be a mistake to engage in technical terms, because I think it comes from a more visceral, negative understanding of cities.”

Tanner Howard: What led you to write this book on the Midwest, which is critical of many accounts of why so many of its cities have declined?

Jason Hackworth: I think much of the narrative, even among sympathizers with struggling cities, focuses way too much on the people living in them and not on the forces, people, and influences that are outside of the borders of those cities. I think sometimes when urbanists look at the United States, we think of everything through the prism of local control, sort of a scaled-up version of individualistic neoliberalism – that if you fail or succeed it’s on your own intelligence, work ethic, on all of these sorts of things. I think there’s certainly a group of ideologues in the conservative movement who has a very organized and pernicious agenda to sell this kind of mythology, but I think even technical or scholarly center-left and even far-left people adopt these assumptions passively. And to me the truth is whatever’s motivating it, the ability for a city or neighborhood to turn a corner, particularly non-white neighborhoods in the Midwest, is severely constrained by a variety of forces.

TH: What kinds of things have been naturalized in general conversation about Midwest cities?

JH: Some of those are simply things that we just kind of politically naturalize, like the way schools are funded and the way that municipal boundaries are drawn. We just sort of say, ‘Well, that’s just the way they are, there’s nothing we can do about that,’ when they’re totally political acts, sometimes ones that are actually directly retaliatory measures. I think about the various legislatures throughout the Midwest overturning minimum wage laws or preempting cities from minimum wage guidelines. There have been a variety of examples like that throughout the last fifty years in the Midwest, particularly after whatever city in question has just elected a Black Mayor or City Council.

There’s also the collective construction of blackness as a danger to whites, the collective refusal of white people in the Midwest to live in majority-Black neighborhoods, and the impact that had not just on segregation, which I think has been covered considerably, but on the effective demand for housing in the most African American places. So I think judging the success or failure [of] Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland as though they were some sort of autarky or something that has complete control over their the future is just completely wrong. I think we do a lot of that in casual and not-so-casual ways.

TH: You discuss state-level politics and their impact on declining cities, including the ways in which overpolicing and incarceration have shifted five Michigan state senate seats towards rural areas where people are locked up. How do state-level policies shift resources away from cities?

JH: [State legislatures] or the federal government provide some funding for infrastructure, they provide financial help – you think about Scott Walker and Foxconn, and there’s numerous examples of automobile plants and the like receiving some kind of tax incentive. Whoever’s in the governance office has a great deal of sway over where those get targeted.

I think that preemption laws are actually specific instances of taking something away…I think that there is a politics of retribution. In the Midwest, it’s about punishing Detroit, punishing Chicago, punishing Cleveland, for their perceived overspending. These cities are in difficult straits, and they need help from where the resources in the state exist, and those are not in cities themselves. They’re often in the suburbs. And they’re not only not getting them, but the only source of funding they are getting is in the form of increased policing, which I think destabilizes communities further.

But I would also note that some of it is political in the sense that state legislators making decisions on who they’re going to help and how they’re going to help [them], who gets benefits from this and who doesn’t get benefits, which I think is crucial. But it’s also that I think, you know, the economic elites in a state decide [who] they want to participate with and who they don’t.

TH: Not every Rust Belt city has evolved in the same way. How do you account for some of the internal variation between the fates of different cities over the last fifty years, many of which have lost similar numbers of manufacturing jobs that were once their base?

JH: There’s a fascinating book by a guy named Sean Safford comparing Youngstown [Ohio] and Allentown [Pennsylvania]. Youngstown has really struggled since the late 1970s, and Allentown, which lost a similar number of steel jobs, kind of reinvented itself for the post-industrial economy; it doesn’t have the same levels of unemployment. [Safford] was sort of reverse engineering why. What’s the difference? And he eventually centers on the idea that it was the economic elites in Allentown who were more invested in community. They were the heads of firms, had more community links, and then therefore decided that when deindustrialization made it too expensive to manufacture steel in Allentown, that they were willing and able to make complicated investment decisions in a collective way to help turn a corner for Allentown.

But Youngstown hasn’t had the same recovery. Safford doesn’t get very much into the role of race or racism, but with the decisions of economic elites, we often just think of it as this kind of pure, profit-driven motive. But they’re also human beings, too, that have their own kind of racial sensibilities. And even though Black mayors were being elected in the late Sixties and early Seventies, they were still never accepted by the economic elite. The Detroit Country Club, for example, didn’t have its first Black member until 1986, in the Blackest large city in the United States. You know, boards are incredibly white decision making bodies, and assumptions about the future of the city, and the willingness of firms to make investments that might start reinventing the economy or reduce unemployment, are just palpably less frequent in places that are Black majorities [than] in places like…Allentown that were fairly white Rust Belt cities that have turned a corner.

TH: In that sense, what do you think is the biggest difference between largely Black and largely white Rust Belt areas?

JH: I guess my point is, there is the template for deindustrialization throughout the region, but there has been an uneven—almost every city in the region has lost eighty to ninety percent of its manufacturing jobs from the mid-twentieth century. The reasons why some have been able to convert to a post-industrial economy or retain manufacturing jobs and others have not is not that rooted in price, it’s rooted in decisions that are made at the state house level, in decisions that are made by the heads of firms. And those are not anodyne decisions, in my view, in that they’ve tended to hurt the Black city and the black neighborhood more than similarly deindustrializing white spaces. ■



Tanner Howard is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and masters student in urban planning and policy, with bylines in the Guardian, Citylab, Jacobin, Slate, and elsewhere. They can be found on Twitter @tanner_howard.

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