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“For the Children”: Class, Race, Place, and Late Capitalist Eco-Enclosure in Benton Harbor


 

"One of the great gifts we can give our children is to make sure they connect with the amazing natural resources we have in Michigan.  Whether we take them fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain-biking or simply let them discover the beauty of nature, helping our children connect with the outdoors is essential to making sure our natural resources are protected and respected in the future."

 

 

- Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, March 2007 (Niles Daily Star, 2007)

 

 

"Here is another case of the rich taking from the poor, while those we have elected to protect our best interests, including our governor, tout what a great thing it will be for the community….The rich will get richer, while the working class and poor lose a little more of what they already have little access to: the lake.  Soon, if developers have their way, there will be no such thing as public parks or scenic lake views in Michigan for the masses to enjoy."

 

- Michigan resident Mary Smith, August 10, 2007 (Smith 2007)

 

 

"We’re using economic development to change people’s lives."

- David Whitwam, former CEO of Whirlpool, July 2007

 

 

 

 

DISASTER AS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY

       

 

Beneath the violence and related social and ecological crises that are so endemic in the age of what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism" (Klein 2007), diligent investigators can always discover the hidden machinations of "the business community."  The headlines on Iraq focus on the twists and turns of Washington‘s game and the gory events on the ground. Behind those terrible stories and off dominant media’s radar screen, however, the United States‘ occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan generate a steady flow of capitalist return to strategically placed corporations like Boeing, Raytheon, Halliburton, Blackwater USA, and General Dynamics.  Meanwhile giant western oil companies scheme to extract future super-profits from the petroleum fields of Mesopotamia.  They have acted behind the scenes to shape a draft Iraqi Petroleum Law they hope someday will favor such an outcome.

 

Hurricane Katrina provides another terrible example. When most Americans think of Katrina, their minds flash to shocking images of bloated bodies and scenes of desperation at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome.  But there was and is a deeper Katrina story hidden from public view.  As Greg Palast notes:

 

"The corpses floating through the Ninth Ward attracted vultures.  There was ChoicePoint. They picked up a contract to identify the bodies using their War on Terror DNA database.  In the face of tragedy, America‘s business community pulled together, lobbying hard to remove the ‘Davis-Bacon’ regulation that guarantees emergency workers receive a minimum prevailing wage.  Within the week, the Navy penned a half-billion contract for construction work with Halliburton.  More would come."

 

"Our President, as he does in any emergency situation, announced additional tax cuts.  He ordered immediate write-offs for new equipment used in rebuilding.  That will likely provide a relief for Halliburton, but the deductions were useless to small New Orleans businesses which had no incomes to write off.  The oil majors, the trillion dollar babies, won a $700 million tax break."

 

"Don’t think of hurricanes as horrors, "Palast writes, "but as [business] opportunities" (Palast 2007, p. 321).

 

 

"BECAUSE OF EVERYTHING’S THAT’S BEEN GOING ON FOR YEARS"

 

A smaller example can be found in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a desperately poor and 92 percent black town directly adjacent to Lake Michigan.  Containing 11,000 people and located 100 miles east of Chicago, Benton Harbor is an especially graphic reminder that concentrated racial oppression lives beyond the metropolitan core. The town was designated "the worst place to live in the nation" by Money Magazine in 1989. Even at the end of the long 1990s "Clinton Boom," more than half of Benton Harbor‘s children and 40 percent of its families lived in official poverty. The city’s poverty rate was three and a half times that of the U.S. as a whole. Median family income in Benton Harbor was $19, 250, just more than two-thirds of the minimum basic family budget (the real cost of being poor, as meticulously calculated by The Economic Policy Institute) for one single parent and two children living there: $28, 422.  According to one Benton Harbor minister, less than one in three adult Benton Harbor males was employed in the spring of 2003 (Koltowitz 1998; U.S. Census 2000; Boushey et al. 2001)..

 

The concentrated misery in Benton Harbor stands in sharply incongruous contrast to the picturesque lakefront properties, beaches and rustic terrain that surround the town in scenic Berrien County.  That 80 percent white county’s family poverty rate (9 percent) and median family income ($47,000) are roughly proximate to those of the nation as a whole (U.S. Census 2000).

 

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